Texas executes white supremacist convicted in gruesome 1998 hate crime

Kristin Lam

A killer in one of the most gruesome hate crimes in modern U.S. history was executed Wednesday by lethal injection in Texas.

John William King, 44, was pronounced dead shortly after 7 p.m. local time in a Hunstville prison after murdering James Byrd, Jr., two decades ago in Jasper, Texas. 

King and two other white men were convicted of murdering Byrd in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998. They beat Byrd, 49, chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for three miles down a logging road in Japser County, tearing his body apart.  

Prosecutors said Byrd was targeted because he was black. King, a white supremacist who orchestrated the attack, is the second man to be executed in the case. Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed in 2011 while Shawn Allen Berry was sentenced to life in prison. 

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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

The Supreme Court refused a last-day appeal from King shortly before his execution. Prison officials said he was stoic as he awaited the lethal injection, which two of Byrd's sisters and a niece witnessed. 

One of Byrd's sisters, Clara Byrd Taylor, said the execution was a necessary step in the saga of her brother's murder. 

“It’s a very, very sad time,” Taylor, 71, said before the execution. “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.”

The murder rocked the city of Japser, a city of 7,600 people about 140 miles northeast of Houston, and drew international and national attention.

Texas and federal hate crime legislation are named in memory of Byrd. The family also created the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing, which still raises money for diversity training and scholarships today.

The execution may not bring closure for the city's community, said Mia Moody-Ramirez, a Baylor University professor and researcher who has studied the impact of Byrd's murder on Jasper.  

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

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)

Contributing: Rick Jervis, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas executes white supremacist convicted in gruesome 1998 hate crime