- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A white supremacist gang member was headed to the death chamber Wednesday for the infamous dragging death 13 years ago of James Byrd Jr., a black man from Jasper in East Texas.

Byrd, 49, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and pulled whiplike to his death along a bumpy asphalt road in one of the most grisly hate crime murders in recent Texas history.

Appeals to the courts for inmate Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, have been exhausted, and no last-day attempts to save his life have been filed.

Besides Brewer, John William King, now 36, was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row for Byrd’s death, which shocked the nation for its brutality. King’s conviction and death sentence remain under appeal. A third man, Shawn Berry, 36, received a life prison term.

“One down and one to go,” said Billy Rowles, the retired Jasper County sheriff who first investigated the horrific scene. “That’s kind of cruel, but that’s reality.”

Byrd’s sister, Clara Taylor, said someone from her brother’s family needed to be present to watch Brewer die, so she planned to be in the death chamber.

“He had choices,” she said Tuesday, referring to Brewer. “He made the wrong choices.”

While the lethal injection wouldn’t compare to the death her brother endured, she said, “knowing you’re going to be executed, that has to be a sobering thought.”

It was about 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 7, 1998, when witnesses saw Byrd walking on a road not far from his home in Jasper, a town of more than 7,000 about 125 miles northeast of Houston. Many folks knew he lived off disability checks, couldn’t afford his own car and walked wherever he needed to go. Another witness then saw him riding in the bed of a dark pickup.

Six hours later and some 10 miles away on Huff Creek Road, the bloody mess found after daybreak was thought at first to be animal road kill. Mr. Rowles, a former Texas state trooper who had taken office as sheriff the previous year, believed it was a hit-and-run fatality, but evidence didn’t match up with someone caught beneath a vehicle. Body parts were scattered, and the blood trail began with footprints at what appeared to be the scene of a scuffle.

 “I didn’t go down that road too far before I knew this was going to be a bad deal,” he said at Brewer’s trial.

Fingerprints taken from the headless torso identified the victim as Byrd.

Testimony showed the three men and Byrd drove out into the county about 10 miles and stopped along an isolated logging road. A fight broke out, and the outnumbered Byrd was tied to the truck bumper with a 24½-foot logging chain. Three miles later, what was left of his shredded remains was dumped between a black church and cemetery where the pavement ended on the remote road.

Brewer, King and Berry were in custody by the end of the next day.

The crime put Jasper under a national spotlight and lured the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, among others, to try to exploit the notoriety of the case. Byrd’s killing continues — many say unfairly — to brand Jasper more than a decade later.

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