HUNTSVILLE, Texas — A man who helped carry out the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. — one of the most horrific hate crimes in modern American history — was executed by injection on Wednesday evening in a Texas prison.
John William King, 44, was one of three men convicted for the murder. He is the second person to die for the crime that made news around the world and helped inspire Congress to pass federal hate crime legislation.
King was put to death at 7:08 p.m. at Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
Byrd’s acquaintances told police they’d seen Byrd, who was black, at a party the night of June 6, 1998, that he’d left around 2 a.m. and was later seen riding in the bed of a pickup with three white men in the cab.
Authorities said King, Lawrence Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry picked up Byrd and drove him to a secluded area where they beat him and spray-painted his face before tying a logging chain around his ankles and dragging him behind a pickup truck for almost 3 miles.
Some of Byrd’s relatives had objected to King’s death sentence.
His sister, Betty Boatner, told CNN in 2011, after Brewer’s execution, that she “forgave him 13 years ago.” His son, Ross, joined protests decrying Brewer’s execution, saying, “You can’t fight murder with murder.” Ross’ sister, Renee Mullins, said after Brewer’s execution that she preferred a life sentence for her dad’s killer.
While most murders are brutal, the viciousness of Byrd’s killing shocked the world. NBA star Dennis Rodman came forward to pay for Byrd’s funeral. Filmmakers produced multiple documentaries. Artists including Geto Boys, Drive-By Truckers and Will Smith referenced the violent saga in their songs. Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton penned an ode to Byrd.
Most importantly, the 49-year-old’s slaying spurred Texas and Congress to push through hate crime legislation.
The federal act is often associated with the killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay student beaten to death in Wyoming, but the full name of the law is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
King had long maintained his innocence, once sending a letter to the Dallas Morning News that would later be used against him. He had said that the evidence presented in his case was circumstantial and that Berry was solely responsible for Byrd’s death.
King has repeatedly appealed his guilty verdict, claiming ineffective assistance from his counsel, but a federal appeals court upheld his conviction last year, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear his case in October.
Though the motive was never specifically outlined, race was a theme in King’s trial. Prosecutors presented evidence that King had been an “exalted cyclops” of the white supremacist Confederate Knights of America and regularly drew lynching scenes.
King was the third prisoner executed in Texas this year, after cop killer Robert Mitchell Jennings and triple murderer Billie Wayne Coble.