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Death Sentence in Dragging Case

February 26, 1999

JASPER, Texas (AP) _ His fate sealed, John King’s unflinching demeanor cracked for just an instant, revealing a flash of the contempt that drove the white supremacist to murder.

Moments after he was sentenced to die, King hissed and cursed the family of the black man he dragged to death behind a pickup truck in what prosecutors said was a hideous bid to win credibility for his fledgling hate group.

``It just sums up the total personality of this young man,″ said Mary Verrett, a sister of King’s mutilated victim. ``He has no remorse even in the face of death. He’s a danger to everybody.″

Eleven white jurors and their elected black foreman took less than three hours Thursday to sentence King to lethal injection rather than life in prison for the murder of James Byrd Jr.

``Bye! Bye, King!,″ spectators taunted as King, 24, was escorted by police from the Jasper County Courthouse.

When asked if he had anything to say to Byrd’s family, King said ``Yeah″ and muttered an obscenity.

``Though I remain adamant about my innocence, it’s been obvious from the beginning that this community would get what they desire,″ King said in a statement released by his lawyer.

``So I’ll close with the words of Francis Yockey,″ he added, quoting an author of Nazi doctrine. ```The promise of success is with the man who is determined to die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.‴

Prosecutor Guy James Gray said he was not surprised by King’s reaction.

``It’s consistent with all the other things,″ he said. ``The man has no remorse for what he did.″

What King did was commit one of the nation’s grisliest racial crimes since the civil rights era.

Prosecutors said Byrd, 49, was killed June 7 after King and two other white men beat him, lashed him by the ankles to the truck with a 24 1/2-foot logging chain and dragged him nearly three miles down an asphalt road.

His head and right arm were torn off and his torso was dumped across from a black cemetery in what prosecutors said was a message of terror to other blacks.

Lawrence Brewer, 31, and Shawn Berry, 24, are awaiting trial. They, too, could get the death penalty. No trial dates have been set.

Byrd’s death shocked the nation and horrified residents of Jasper, a timber town of 8,000 people about 100 miles northeast of Houston.

``Who would have ever predicted anything like this would have occurred in the first place, or any kind of hate could exist in somebody who lives among us like this,″ said juror Lequeta Flowers. ``It’s scary, for everybody.″

King had been expressionless throughout the five-week trial. He appeared to be moved only when his ailing father testified Wednesday, refusing to be in the courtroom as Ronald King tearfully asked the jury to spare his son.

But once back at the county jail Wednesday night, Sheriff Billy Rowles said King was ``cussing, raising Cain, kicking the doors.″

``I think probably the reality hit him in the last 24 to 36 hours,″ Rowles said. ``He was mad.″

King’s attorney, Haden Cribbs, had urged jurors to return a life sentence.

``He’s a difficult young man,″ he said. ``The best you could hope for is to get some juror to at least hang on one of the issues that would result in a non-death penalty. That’s awfully, awfully difficult.″

Prosecutors insisted a life sentence _ which carries the possibility of parole in Texas after 40 years _ would not protect society.

``From what you’ve witnessed in this courtroom, this man will hurt and harm and kill again,″ Gray said.

While in prison for a burglary conviction, King adorned himself with racist, Nazi and satanic tattoos and hatched the idea to form a racist hate group in Jasper.

The Byrd murder, prosecutors said, was intended to drum up publicity and recruits for his Confederate Knights of America Texas Rebel Soldiers.

King is the first white sent to death row in Texas for killing a black person since capital punishment resumed in the 1970s. Texas has executed only one white person for killing a black, in 1854.

``I don’t think we ever really thought of it in those terms,″ Gray said. ``It was just a bad crime, a bombshell.″

King spent his first night as a condemned man at the James Byrd Diagnostic Unit in Huntsville. The facility is named after a deceased warden unrelated to King’s victim.

He was to be taken today to death row at the Ellis Unit, near Huntsville.

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