Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Murder of James Byrd, Jr.

James Byrd, Jr.
Born May 2, 1949
Beaumont, Texas, United States
Died June 7, 1998 (aged 49)
Jasper, Texas, United States
James Byrd, Jr. (May 2, 1949 – June 7, 1998) was an African-American who was murdered by three white men in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King dragged Byrd behind a pick-up truck along a asphalt pavement after they wrapped a heavy logging chain around his ankles. Byrd was pulled along for about two miles as the truck swerved from side to side.
Byrd, who remained conscious throughout most of the ordeal, was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert severing his right arm and head. The murderers drove on for another mile before dumping his torso in front of an African-American cemetery in Jasper. Byrd's lynching-by-dragging gave impetus to passage of a Texas hate crimes law. It later led to the Federal October 22, 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, commonly known as the "Matthew Shepard Act". President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on October 28, 2009.

The victim

James Byrd, Jr. was born in Beaumont, Texas, one of nine children, to Stella (1925 – October 7, 2010) and James Byrd, Sr. (born 1924).

The murder

On June 7, 1998, Byrd, age 49, accepted a ride from Shawn Berry (age 24), Lawrence Brewer (age 31), and John King (age 23). Berry, who was driving, was acquainted with Byrd from around town. Instead of taking Byrd home, the three men took Byrd to a remote county road out of town, beat him with anything they could find, urinated on his unconscious body, chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck dragging him for three miles. Brewer later claimed that Byrd's throat had been slashed by Berry before he was dragged. However, forensic evidence suggests that Byrd had been attempting to keep his head up while being dragged, and an autopsy suggested that Byrd was alive during much of the dragging. Byrd died after his right arm and head were severed after his body hit a culvert. His body had caught the culvert on the side of the road, resulting in Byrd's decapitation.
Berry, Brewer, and King dumped their victim's mutilated remains in front of an African-American cemetery on Huff Creek Road; the three men then went to a barbecue. Along the area where Byrd was dragged, authorities found a wrench with "Berry" written on it. They also found a lighter that was inscribed with "Possum", which was King's prison nickname. The following morning, Byrd's limbs were found scattered across a seldom-used road. The police found 75 places that were littered with Byrd's remains. State law enforcement officials, along with Jasper's District Attorney, determined that since Brewer and King were well-known white supremacists, the murder was a hate crime. They decided to call upon the Federal Bureau of Investigation less than 24 hours after the discovery of Byrd's remains.
King had several tattoos considered to be racist: a black man hanging from a tree, Nazi symbols, the words "Aryan Pride," and the patch for a gang of white supremacist inmates known as the Confederate Knights of America. In a jailhouse letter to Brewer that was intercepted by jail officials, King expressed pride in the crime and said he realized in committing the murder he might have to die. "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!", King wrote. An officer investigating the case also testified that witnesses said King had referenced The Turner Diaries after beating Byrd.
Berry, Brewer, and King were tried and convicted for Byrd's murder. Brewer and King received the death penalty, while Berry was sentenced to life in prison.

The perpetrators

The perpetrators who are under a death sentence are held at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit
Shawn Allen Berry
The driver of the truck, Berry was the most difficult to convict of the three defendants because there was a lack of evidence to suggest that he himself was a racist. Berry had also claimed that Brewer and King were entirely responsible for the crime. Brewer, however, testified that it was Berry who cut Byrd's throat before he was tied to the truck. The jury decided that there was little evidence to support this claim. As a result, Berry was spared the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. Berry, Texas Department of Criminal Justice#00894758, is in the Ramsey Unit in Brazoria County, Texas, and his parole eligibility date is June 7, 2038. As of 2003 Berry is in protective custody; he spends 23 hours per day in a 8-foot (2.4 m) by 6-foot (1.8 m) cell, with one hour for exercise. Berry married a woman named Christie Marcontell by proxy.
Lawrence Russell Brewer
Brewer was a white supremacist who, prior to Byrd's murder, had served a prison sentence for drug possession and burglary. He was paroled in 1991. After violating his parole conditions in 1994, Brewer was returned to prison. According to his court testimony, he joined a white supremacist gang with King in prison in order to safeguard himself from other inmates. Brewer and King became friends in the Beto Unit prison. A psychiatrist testified that Brewer did not appear repentant for his crimes. Brewer was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. Brewer, TDCJ#999327, is in the death row at the Polunsky Unit. Brewer has a scheduled execution date of 09/21/2011.
John William King
King was accused of beating Byrd with a bat and then dragging him behind a truck until he died. King had previously claimed that he had been gang-raped in prison by black inmates. Although he had no previous record of racism, King had joined a white supremacist prison gang, allegedly for self-protection. He was found guilty and sentenced to death for his role in Byrd's kidnapping and murder. King, TDCJ#999295, is in the death row at the Polunsky Unit.

Reactions to the murder

Numerous aspects of the Byrd murder echo lynching traditions. These include mutilation or decapitation and revelry, such as a barbecue or a picnic, during or after.
Byrd's murder was strongly condemned by Jesse Jackson and the Martin Luther King Center as an act of vicious racism and focused national attention on the prevalence of white supremacist prison gangs.
The victim's family created the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing after his death. In 1999 Chantal Akerman, inspired by the literary works of William Faulkner, set out to make a film about the beauty of the American South. However, after arriving on location (in Jasper, Texas) and learning of the brutal racist murder, she changed her focus. Akerman made Sud (French for "South") a meditation on the events surrounding the crime and the history of racial violence in the United States. In 2003, a movie about the crime, titled Jasper, Texas, was produced and aired on Showtime. The same year, a documentary named Two Towns of Jasper, made by filmmakers Marco Williams and Whitney Dow, premiered on PBS's P.O.V. series.
Basketball star Dennis Rodman offered to pay for Byrd's funeral. Although Byrd's family declined this offer, they accepted a $25,000 donation by Rodman to a fund started to support Byrd's family.
While at radio station WARW in Washington, D.C., DJ Doug Tracht (also known as "The Greaseman") made a derogatory comment about James Byrd after playing Lauryn Hill's song "Doo Wop (That Thing)". The February 1999 incident proved catastrophic to Tracht's radio career, igniting protests from black and white listeners alike. He was quickly fired from WARW and lost his position as a volunteer deputy sheriff in Falls Church, Virginia.


Some advocacy groups, such as the NAACP National Voter Fund, made an issue of this case during George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000. They accused Bush of implicit racism since, as governor of Texas, he opposed hate crime legislation. Also, citing a prior commitment, Bush could not appear at Byrd's funeral. Because two of the three murderers were sentenced to death and the third to life in prison (all charged with and convicted of capital murder, the highest felony level in Texas), Governor Bush maintained that "we don't need tougher laws". The 77th Texas Legislature passed the James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act. With the signature of Governor Rick Perry, who had inherited the balance of Bush's unexpired term, the act became Texas state law in 2001. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act expanded the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.


Ross Byrd, the only son of James Byrd, has been involved with Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, an organization that opposes capital punishment. He has campaigned to spare the lives of those who murdered his father and appears briefly in the documentary Deadline about the death penalty in Illinois.

Musical Tributes

In 2010, Alabama musician Matthew Mayfield penned, recorded, and released a song in Byrd's honor. The tune, titled "Still Alive," is the fourth track on Mayfield's EP "You're Not Home." "Still Alive" clearly related a stark bitterness towards racism and equated such hate crimes to genocide.
"The Ballad of James Byrd" is another tribute to Byrd, written and performed by Southern Californian musician Ross Durand.
"The New Hell" by death metal band The Famine mentions Byrd on their album The Architects of Guilt (2011).
"Jasper" by Confrontation Camp, the fifth track on the album "Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" (2000).

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