John William King, 44, a white supremacist who brutally murdered a black man named James Byrd, Jr. in a 1998 hate crime that horrified the nation, was executed on Wednesday night in Texas via lethal injection. When asked if he had any last words, King reportedly said “no” before receiving the injection.
“King showed no remorse then and showed no remorse tonight,” Byrd’s older sister, Clara Byrd Taylor, said in a statement. “This execution tonight was just punishment for his actions.”
King was one of three men who was arrested and charged with the death of Byrd, who was last seen on June 6th, 1998, sitting in the bed of a pickup truck with King, Lawrence Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry. The three men were accused of beating Byrd and spray-painting his face before chaining him to a pickup truck and dragging him for nearly three miles down a Jasper, Texas road. King and Brewer were both given the death penalty (Brewer was executed in 2011), while Berry was given a life sentence.
The sheer brutality of the crime shocked people around the world, and inspired Congress to author anti-hate-crime legislation in Byrd’s honor. A 2009 federal law prosecuting hate crimes, the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, is named after Byrd and Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was brutally beaten and left to die on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.
A self-avowed racist, King was open about his hatred for people of color and had many racist tattoos, including an image of a black man with a noose around his neck. For years, however, he maintained his innocence in the vicious crime, hinting at various times that he was not present during the attack and that Byrd’s murder was not racially motivated, but a drug deal gone bad. Brewer denied this immediately before his execution, telling a local sheriff that “the whole thing was [King’s] idea.” In the years leading up to his execution, King’s lawyers unsuccessfully tried to appeal his sentence, arguing that King’s rights were violated because his attorneys did not present his claims of innocence at trial. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeal mere hours before he was executed.
King is the fourth inmate to be executed in the United States this year and the third to be executed in Texas. Since 1976, when the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of capital punishment, Texas has executed 561 people, far more than any other state in the United States.
Some of Byrd’s relatives did not support the execution of Brewer or King. At the time of Brewer’s death, Byrd’s only son Ross told the Washington Post he did not support the death penalty for his father’s killers due to his Christian faith, saying, “You can’t fight murder with murder.” Others, however, felt that the death penalty offered no semblance of justice given the horrific nature of the crime. “All they are going to do is go to sleep,” Louvon Byrd Harris, Byrd’s younger sister, said before King’s execution. “But half the things they did to James, all the suffering he had to go through, they still get an easy way out to me.”