Texas will execute man tied to one of the most gruesome modern hate crimes

Rick Jervis

AUSTIN – Sometime after 6 p.m. Wednesday, Clara Byrd Taylor will step into a viewing room next to the death chamber at the Huntsville Unit prison in East Texas and watch a man die.

She won’t relish witnessing John William King, 44, succumb to a cocktail of injected lethal fluids but said it’s a necessary step in the long saga of her brother’s murder. King and two other accomplices were convicted in the murder of Taylor’s brother, James Byrd, Jr., two decades ago in Jasper, Texas.

“It’s a very, very sad time,” Taylor, 71, said. “You don’t feel any satisfaction in observing this but it is absolutely necessary to send a message: Hate crimes – especially this type of savagery – will not be tolerated in our society.”

King is scheduled to die on Wednesday for the 1998 death of Byrd. In the early morning hours of June 7, 1998, King and two other men beat Byrd, 49, chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for three miles down a logging road in Jasper County, tearing his body apart. Prosecutors said the men did it because Byrd was black.

James Byrd Jr., shown in this 1997 family photo, was tied to a truck and dragged to his death along a rural East Texas road early Sunday, June 7, 1998, near Jasper, Texas. Three white men were charged Tuesday, June 9, 1998 with first degree murder in his death. (AP Photo/Byrd Family Photo) ORG XMIT: XJAS102

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The gruesome death sparked worldwide outrage and is still considered one of the grisliest racial killings in American history.

One of the other men involved, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was executed in 2011, and the third participant, Shawn Allen Berry, was sentenced to life in prison.

King, believed to be the incident's ringleader, had a final round of appeals denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in October.

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The murder shook Jasper, Texas, a city of 7,600 people about 140 miles northeast of Houston, and garnered national and international attention. Black Panther militants and Klu Klux Klansmen descended onto the town, revving for conflict. 

But the Byrd family urged peace and asked that justice be allowed to run its course, Taylor said.

“We didn’t want James’ death to lead to more violence. That was our goal,” she said. “Just let the judicial system do what needs to be done.”

Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, hugs Renee Mullins, in blue, the daughter of James Byrd Jr., while visiting the Byrd family Wednesday, June 10, 1998, in Jasper, Texas. James Byrd Jr. was chained to pickup truck and dragged to his death along a rural East Texas road near Jasper. Three white men have been charged with his murder. Others shown are unidentified. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) ORG XMIT: XJAS111

Cooperation between the city's religious and law enforcement leaders also helped keep the peace, said Mia Moody-Ramirez, a Baylor University professor and researcher who, along with Cassy Burleson, has studied the impact of Byrd's murder on Jasper.  

Though King's execution could bring some closure, the murder will live on in the city's DNA, Moody-Ramirez said. 

"They might say, 'Ok, this person has been executed, we could move on,'" she said. "But people won’t ever forget."

A year after the murder, the family created the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing, which raises money for diversity training, scholarships and other endeavors. It raised money for playground equipment at James Byrd Jr, Memorial Park, located less than a mile from where her brother was picked up that morning in 1998, Taylor said.

On most days there, you could see children of all races and ethnicities playing together, pint-sized proof of the foundation’s goals, she said. 

“We need to work on getting to know one another better, so our prejudices don’t lead to racial hatred that leads to violence,” Taylor said.

ORG XMIT: TXDP116 Ricky Jason wears a photograph of James Byrd Jr. outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit before the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, in Huntsville, Texas. Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., was executed Wednesday. Brewer was convicted for his participation in chaining Byrd to the back of a pickup truck, dragging the black man along a rural East Texas road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church cemetery in 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Taylor said she planned to gather with family members Tuesday night, read some passages out of the Bible and brace for any last-minute reprieves for King. Though rare, last-minute stays of execution do occur, said Jeremy Desel, a spokesman with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Last month, the Supreme Court halted the execution of inmate Patrick Murphy on his claim that he was denied a Buddhist spiritual advisor with him in the death chamber. The stay arrived the day of his execution – two hours after he was scheduled to be escorted to the death chamber, Desel said.

Barring any last-minute reprieves, Taylor said she’ll enter the death chamber's viewing room with her sister, Louvon Byrd Harris, and daughter, Tiffany Taylor Holmes, and watch King take his final breath.

She’ll do it for her mother, Stella Byrd, who always doubted justice would prevail for her son and died waiting in 2010. And she’ll do it for future generations, so that no one forgets what happened to her brother, she said.

“It’s a very emotional time for all of us, having to go back and relive it all,” Taylor said. “But it’s a necessary pain. It’s necessary for us to follow through.”

Contributing: Associated Press. 

Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas will execute man tied to one of the most gruesome modern hate crimes