Murder of James Byrd, Jr.

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James Byrd, Jr.
Born (1949-05-02)May 2, 1949
Beaumont, Texas, United States
Died June 7, 1998(1998-06-07) (aged 49)
Jasper, Texas, United States

James Byrd, Jr. (May 2, 1949 – June 7, 1998) was an African-American who was murdered by three men, of whom at least two were white supremacists, in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998. Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King dragged Byrd for three miles behind a pick-up truck along an asphalt road. 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.[1] Byrd's lynching-by-dragging gave impetus to passage of a Texas hate crimes law. It later led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, commonly known as the Matthew Shepard Act, which passed on October 22, 2009, and which President Barack Obama signed into law on October 28, 2009.[2]

Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed by lethal injection for this crime by the state of Texas on September 21, 2011.[3] King remains on Texas' death row while appeals are pending,[4][5][6] while Berry was sentenced to life imprisonment.


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


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.[8][9]


On June 7, 1998, Byrd, age 49, accepted a ride from Shawn Berry (age 24), Lawrence Russell 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 severely, urinated on him and chained him by his ankles to their pickup truck before dragging him for approximately 1.5 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 when his body hit a culvert.[10] Byrd's brain and skull were found intact, further suggesting he maintained consciousness while being dragged.[11]

Berry, Brewer and King dumped the mutilated remains of the body in front of an African-American church on Huff Creek Road, then drove off to a barbecue. Along the area where Byrd was dragged, police found a wrench with "Berry" written on it. They also found a lighter that was inscribed with "Possum", which was King's prison nickname.[12] The following morning, Byrd's limbs were found scattered across a seldom-used road. The police found 81 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.[citation needed]

King had several racist 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.[13] In a jailhouse letter to Brewer that was intercepted by jail officials, King expressed pride in the crime and said that he realized while committing the murder that he might have to die. "Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!" King wrote.[10] An officer investigating the case also testified that witnesses said that King had referenced The Turner Diaries after beating Byrd.[14]

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. Brewer was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011[3] while King remains on Texas' death row.[4][5][6]


The perpetrators were held at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit

Shawn Allen Berry[edit]

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 was a racist.[citation needed] Berry had also claimed that Brewer and King were entirely responsible for the crime. Brewer, however, testified that Berry had cut Byrd's throat before he was tied to the truck. The jury decided that there was little evidence to support this claim.[15] As a result, Berry was spared the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. Berry, TDCJ#00894758, is currently held at the Ramsey Unit in Rosharon, Texas,[6] and his parole eligibility date is June 7, 2038.[16] As of 2003 Berry is in protective custody; he spends 23 hours per day in an 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.[17] Marcontell was Berry's girlfriend at the time of the murder. The two have a child together.

Lawrence Russell Brewer[edit]

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.[18] Brewer and King became friends in the Beto Unit prison.[6] A psychiatrist testified that Brewer did not appear repentant for his crimes. Brewer was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.[19] Brewer, TDCJ#999327,[20] was on death row at the Polunsky Unit.[6] Brewer was executed in the Huntsville Unit on September 21, 2011.[21] The day before his execution, Brewer expressed no guilt for his crime as he told KHOU 11 News in Houston: "As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I'd do it all over again, to tell you the truth."[22]

Last meal[edit]

Before his execution Brewer ordered a large meal that included two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, a large bowl of fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover's pizza, a pint of ice cream, and a slab of peanut butter fudge with lots of crushed peanuts. However he did not eat any of it and the meal was discarded, prompting Texas prison officials to end the 87-year-old tradition[23] of giving last meals to condemned inmates.[24][25][26]

John William King[edit]

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.[27] Although he had no previous record of racism, King had joined a white supremacist prison gang, allegedly for self-protection.[28] As a child he was diagnosed as manic-depressive. He was found guilty and sentenced to death for his role in Byrd's kidnapping and murder.[4] King, TDCJ#999295,[5] is on death row at the Polunsky Unit.[6]

Reactions to the murder[edit]

Numerous aspects of the Byrd murder echo lynching traditions. These include mutilation or decapitation and revelry, such as a barbecue or a picnic, either during or after a lynching. Byrd's murder was strongly condemned by Jesse Jackson and the Martin Luther King Center as an act of vicious racism[29] 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. Basketball star Dennis Rodman paid their funeral expenses and gave Byrd's family $25,000. Fight promoter Don King gave Byrd's children $100,000 to be put towards their education expenses.[30]

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.[31] In 2008, first time director and activist Ricky Jason and his wife Sharon Jason released the film "Byrd: The Life And Tragic Death of James Byrd Jr." as a tribute to Byrd, which featured interviews from Byrd's children, Dick Gregory, Susan Sarandon, Martin Luther III, Sister Helen Prejean, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and other notables. </ref>

While at radio station WARW in Washington, D.C., DJ Doug Tracht (also known as "The Greaseman") made a derogatory comment referring to James Byrd after playing Lauryn Hill's song "Doo Wop (That Thing)".[32] 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.

In May 2004 two white men were arrested and charged with criminal mischief for desecrating James Byrd Jr.'s grave with racial slurs and profanities.[33]

Impact on US politics[edit]

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 inherited the balance of Bush's unexpired term, the act became Texas state law in 2001.[34] 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.[35]

Musical tributes[edit]

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. "Tell Me Why" by Will Smith featuring Mary J. Blige mentions Byrd on Will Smith's fourth album, Lost and Found. "The Ballad of James Byrd" is another tribute to Byrd, written and performed by Southern Californian musician Ross Durand. Houston rapper E.S.G. mentions Byrd on the song "Realest Rhyming" from his 1999 album Shinin' N' Grindin', stating "...let the Klu Klux know that I'mma blast ya/heard how ya done James Byrd down up in Jasper."

"The New Hell" by death metal band The Famine mentions Byrd on their album The Architects of Guilt (2011). "Jasper", by Confrontation Camp, is the fifth track on the album Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (2000). "100 Miles" by Rollins Band is a b-side track from their album "Get Some Go Again." The song's lyrics are written in the first person about a vigilante who takes the lives of Byrd's killers (2000). "Guitar Drag" by sound artist Christian Marclay is a video- and sound-installation about the murder of James Byrd (2000). "I Heard 'Em Say" by Ryan Bingham is about Byrd's murder and the racially charged climate around Jasper following the crime (2012)1992 the song was written A Tribute song call "Love, Peace,& harmony " was one of the first songs tribute to the late James Byrd Jr By:James Ranka,Ricky Jason & Robin Zauba. 1998 the unveiling of oil painting at Lamar University Beaumont,Texas of the late James Byrd Jr.commissioned By:Eligah "Ricky" Jason & Robin Zauba.In 1999 the oil painting was Unveiled of the late James Byrd Jr at Rice University Houston,Texas.Later Ricky Jason toured the paining of James Byrd Jr across the USA. In 2003 Ricky Jason & Robin Zauba donated the painting of James Byrd Jr to his three children, Ross Byrd,Jammie Byrd,Renee Mullens Byrd.In 2002 Ricky Jason also presented the Byrd family with the victory Bob Hope award in Jasper,Texas.In 1998 James Byrd Sr,and the late Stella Byrd mother and father of the late James Byrd Jr. presented activist Eligah "Ricky" Jason with and appreciation award for keeping their son James Byrd Jr's name alive. In 1998 Ross Byrd the son of James Byrd Jr wanted the three man to die for killing his father in 1998. But in 2003 Ross Byrd was recording his tribute CD to his father call "Undeniable Resurrection "Ross byrd broke down and start crying in the studio and told his manager Ricky Jason he did not want the men who killed his father to die.Ross Byrd said he want three men to stay in prison and think about the hate crime they done to his father. Ricky Jason made a call to his good friends Dick Gregory an Martin Luther King III and told them Ross Byrd the son of James Byrd Jr have had a change of heart for the three men that killed his father,so Dick Gregory & Martin Luther King III canceled their busy schedule and flew in to Houston,Texas to meet with Ross Byrd and his mother,sisters and Ricky Jason to hold a press conference at the Shape center in Houston,Texas with over a 100 press media was there, after that they held a 24hour prayer visual Rally and March outside Huntsville, Texas DeathRow were Ross Byrd, Dick Gregory,Martin Luther King III,Ricky Jason,Dave AtWood,Rev JewDon Boney slept outside the Texas death chambers praying for James Byrd Jr Killer not to be executed by the State of Texas. Ross Byrd said we are playing God now if we can't give life we don't have the right to take life. In 2005 Ross Byrd Receive the Martin Luther King Jr. award at SCLC for his stand on Capital Punishment.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Byrd The Life & Tragic Death Of James Byrd Jr. 2006 & award winning documentary film movie. ft. Dick Gregory, Martin Luther King III, Susan Sarandon, Sister Helen Prejean, more. afilm By:Ricky Jason.2006 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.
  • Ainslie, Ricardo. Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder in Jasper, Texas. University of Texas Press, 2004.

External links[edit]