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How James Byrd Jr.'s Horrific Murder Led to Greater Hate Crimes Laws
James Byrd Jr. was beaten, tortured, and fatally dragged behind a truck in Jasper, Texas in 1998. Part of his legacy is a law that bears his name.
James Byrd Jr.'s brutal murder in Texas may seem reminiscent of the racially motivated lynchings and beatings of the Civil Rights Era, but in reality, it was only 25 years ago that he was killed by Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King.
Since then, Byrd's three children have found some purpose in his senseless killing through the creation of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. The act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009, provided funds and expanded upon federal criminal laws regarding crimes committed because of someone's perceived race or sexual orientation.
It's a small comfort to the families of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., who have sought to forgive the men's respective killers. "I had to release the hate that I had held on for so many years because I wanted to live a life of prosperity and a life of peace," Jaime Byrd told People in July 2022.
Who Is James Byrd Jr.?
Born in 1949 to Stella and James Byrd Sr., Byrd Jr. was raised in Beaumont, Texas alongside his eight siblings. He graduated from Jasper's Rowe High School in 1967 as part of the last segregated class before getting married and having three children, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
At the time of his murder in 1998, Byrd was divorced and unemployed, according to the Washington Post. His family told the newspaper that he was formerly a salesman but was receiving disability checks because of a seizure disorder that made him unable to drive.
"He was my big brother,” Mary Verrett told the newspaper. “He loved people, he was very people-oriented. As a matter of fact, he was the kind of person who never wanted to be alone; he would walk up to a group and join right in. He was very intelligent. People in the family told him he never used his full intellect."
What Happened to James Byrd Jr.?
On the evening of June 7, 1998, James Byrd Jr. attended a friend's anniversary party in Jasper, Texas. Unable to drive because of a seizure disorder, Byrd sought a ride from other partygoers but was unable to find one. He decided to walk home around 11:30 p.m., his sister Mary Verrett told the Washington Post.
That night, Shawn Berry, 23; Lawrence Brewer, 31; and John Marshall King, 23, were driving around Jasper. King and Brewer became friends while serving time at the George Beto Unit, a maximum-security prison in Anderson County. There, King and Brewer joined racist prison gangs, including the Confederate Knights of America, according to CNN.
Byrd was unaware of King and Brewer's hateful associations and accepted a ride from Berry, who was driving the men, around 2 a.m. However, instead of driving him home, the three men took him to a remote wooded area where they proceeded to torture the 49-year-old, according to The Washington Post.
After beating him, Berry said that Brewer and King stripped Byrd of his clothing and chained him by his ankles to the truck. They then drove for more than two miles, decapitating Byrd when the car hit a culvert.
“We are all hoping and praying he didn’t have to suffer, that he wasn’t tormented, that at some point in time, he lost consciousness,” Verrett told the Washington Post. “Hopefully, he was able to black out. Otherwise, we couldn’t continue focusing on this.”
Byrd's remains, including his dentures, were found scattered along the two-mile stretch of road where he was dragged, CNN reported. His torso had been dumped outside an old Black cemetery.
How Were Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer and John King Caught?
A motorist spotted Byrd's remains around 9 a.m. the following morning and reported the gruesome discovery to police, according to the Washington Post. Later that night, after police began their investigation, local Jasper resident Steve Scott went to the Sheriff's Office to report that he had seen Byrd driving in the back of a pickup truck earlier that morning.
Based on that description, authorities arrested Berry, who drove a Ford pickup. Berry immediately pointed fingers at roommates Brewer and King, admitting to authorities that he had picked Byrd up but that it was the other two men who had carried out the crime, the Washington Post reported. Berry said that he got in the truck after Byrd had been chained to it and when he realized what was going on, he attempted to leave. However, King refused to pull over, reportedly telling him, "You're just as guilty as we are."
All three men were later indicted by a grand jury on charges of capital murder, which required the prosecution to prove that the crime occurred in conjunction with a kidnapping or robbery.
Ahead of the trial, the suspects' family members distanced themselves from the men, with King's father, Ronald King, writing an apology letter to Fox News. He wrote, according to the Washington Post, "It hurts me deeply to know that a boy I raised and considered to be the most loved boy I knew could find it in himself to take a life."
King was the first to stand trial for Byrd's murder. Over the course of a little more than a week, a jury of 11 white people and one Black man learned about physical evidence tying King to the crime scene and heard his letters in which he espoused the ideals of Ku Klux Klan leaders, according to CNN. Additionally, jurors saw photos of King's tattoos, including the Confederate flag and the "SS" lightning bolts standing for the Nazi Schutzstaffel.
The jury returned a guilty verdict, which was read by the sole Black juror who had attended middle school with King. King was given the death sentence.
"It's one down and two to go," Ross Byrd said at the time, CNN reported.
When Brewer stood trial for the murders, his attorneys argued that he became a white supremacist when he was sent to prison on burglary charges, per a report by the Washington Post. While in prison, both he and King joined the racist group the Confederate Knights of America
His father Shawn Berry Sr. described him as being a "follower" to jurors, according to CourtTV, adding that his son "followed the wrong people."
But state psychiatrist Dr. Edward Gripon testified that Brewer showed little remorse for his actions. "I think he would run a substantial risk. Past behavior appears to be a significant indicator of future behavior," Gripon said, per CourtTV.
Brewer was found guilty of capital murder by an all-white jury and received the death sentence.
Finally, Berry stood trial for the killing. In his court proceedings, prosecutors conceded that Berry was not a white supremacist like Brewer and King, but they argued he actively took part in the killing.
Moreover, witnesses said that Berry's account of events was unreliable. "Every time we confronted him with facts and evidence, he changed his story to fit the evidence," said former FBI agent and witness Zachariah Shelton, according to the Associated Press.
Berry was found guilty of capital murder. During the sentencing phase, he apologized to the Byrds. He said, according to the Washington Post, "I am very sorry from what happened to Mr. Byrd and I've said that from day one. I wanted to speak to the Byrd family personally but I couldn't."
He was sentenced to life in prison.
How Did the Byrd Family Respond to Brewer and King's Execution?
Though the Byrd family celebrated the guilty verdicts for all three men, Byrd's son, Ross Byrd Jr., protested King and Brewer's death penalties because of his religious beliefs. "To want to see the men who killed my daddy die by the state is the same for me to go out and kill them myself," Byrd said in a news conference, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Ahead of Brewer's September 21, 2011 execution, Ross Byrd continued to speak out against capital punishment, telling Reuters, "Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want."
When Were Brewer and King Executed?
Brewer's execution went ahead as scheduled on Sept. 21, 2011. For his last meal, Brewer requested several items, including "a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, three fajitas, one pound of barbecue and a half loaf of white bread, pizza meat lover's special, one pint of 'homemade vanilla' Blue Bell ice cream, one slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts and three root beers," according to the Houston Chronicle.
But when the time came for his feast, Brewer reportedly didn't eat any of it. This ended Texas' long-held tradition of giving the convicts their desired last meal, according to the Chronicle.
The 43-year-old didn't feel bad about the food or Byrd's murder. Days before the execution, which was witnessed by several of Byrd's relatives, he told KHOU, "As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets... I'd do it all over again, to tell you the truth."
King refrained from interviews in the days before his execution on April 24, 2019. According to Fox News, he remained silent in the moments before he was executed by lethal injection at the age of 44.
Following the execution, Byrd's sisters spoke out about King's execution during a press conference, declaring that it was "just punishment for his actions."
Where Is Shawn Berry Now?
Shawn Berry continues to serve out his life sentence at the Texas Department of Correction's Ramsey Unit, where former police officer Roy Oliver is serving time for the death of Black teen Jordan Edwards, alongside Aaron Dean, another former white police officer, who was found guilty in Atatiana Jefferson's shooting.
Berry will be eligible for parole in 2038, when he is 63 years old.
What Is the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009?
President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. This law expanded upon the 1969 federal hate-crimes laws to include a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It also provided funds for local agencies so they can better investigate and prosecute hate crimes in their region.
Previous hate crime laws only protected people of color who were participating in federally protected activities, like voting or going to school.
As a result of this legislation, the Houston Police Department was able to create the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Program, which is co-headed by Byrd's daughter, Jamie Byrd-Grant.
"I joined the Houston Police Department because I vowed to be the change I wanted to see in others. I haven't always wanted to be in law enforcement. To keep my dad's memory alive, I wanted to lead people to know there is no place for hate," Jamie Byrd said of the program.