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James Byrd, Jr.
James Byrd, Jr.
Born May 2, 1949(1949-05-02)
Jasper, Texas U.S.A
Died June 7, 1998 (aged 49)
Jasper, Texas U.S.A.

James Byrd, Jr. (May 2, 1949 – June 7, 1998) was an African-American who was murdered in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. The murderers, Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King, wrapped a heavy logging chain around his ankles, hooked the chain to a pickup truck, and then dragged Byrd about three miles along a macadam pavement as the truck swerved from side to side. Death came when Byrd's body hit the edge of a culvert, which cut off his arm and head. The murderers unchained his torso and left it on the shoulder of the road in front of the town's black cemetery. His lynching-by-dragging gave impetus to passage of a Texas hate crimes law, and, later, after George W. Bush was no longer in office to veto it (HR 1585 was vetoed by Bush on 28 December 2007), the federal hate crimes law, officially known as the 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 murder

On June 7, 1998, Byrd, age 49, accepted a ride from Berry (age 23), Brewer (age 31), and King (age 23). Berry, who was driving, recognized Byrd from around town. Instead of taking him home, the three men beat Byrd behind a convenience store, stripped him naked, chained him by the ankles to their pickup truck, and dragged him for three miles. Brewer later claimed that Byrd's throat had been slashed 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.[1]

Berry, Brewer, and King dumped their victim's mutilated remains in the town's black cemetery; 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.[2] 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's body bore several tattoos: 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.[3] In a jailhouse letter to Brewer that was intercepted by jail officials, King expressed pride in the crime and said he realized that he might have to die for committing it. "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!", King wrote.[1] An officer investigating the case also testified that witnesses said King had referenced The Turner Diaries after beating Byrd.[4]

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

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.[5] As a result, Berry was spared the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. As of 2010 Berry is incarcerated at the Ramsey I Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and he has the TDCJ ID 00894758. His parole eligibility date is June 7, 2038.[6]
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.[7] A psychiatrist testified that Brewer did not appear repentant for his crimes. Brewer was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. As of 2010 he is imprisoned in the Polunsky Unit and has the TDCJ ID 00999327.[8]
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.[9] 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. As of 2010 he is imprisoned in the Polunsky Unit and has the TDCJ ID 00999295.[10]

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.[11]

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)".[12] 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 declined to 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". However, after Governor Rick Perry inherited the balance of Bush's unexpired term, the 77th Texas Legislature passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on May 11, 2001.


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.

See also


Further reading

  • King, Joyce. Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas. Pantheon, 2002.
  • Temple-Raston, Dina. A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder, and a Small Town's Struggle for Redemption. Henry Holt and Co., January 6, 2002.

External links

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