Louvon Harris with a photo of her brother James Byrd Jr., who was murdered by white supremacists in 1998.CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times
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John William King, 44, convicted two decades ago for killing James Byrd Jr. in an act of unfathomable racist brutality in the small town of Jasper, was put to death by the State of Texas on Wednesday night with a dose of pentobarbital.
The execution, carried out at the state’s death chamber in Huntsville, came after the United States Supreme Court turned down Mr. King’s last petition for a stay. He was pronounced dead at 7:08 p.m., said Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Mr. King kept his eyes closed as witnesses arrived to the execution chamber on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. When the prison warden, Bill Lewis, asked him if he had any final words, Mr. King said, “No.”
Mr. King made a final statement issued in writing, Mr. Desel said. “Capital Punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment,” it said.
John William KingCreditTexas Department of Criminal Justice, via Associated Press
Early on a Sunday morning in 1998, Mr. King and two other white men attacked Mr. Byrd, a 49-year-old black man who had been offered a ride home in a sinister gesture of neighborliness. The men beat him, spray-painted his face, chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death on an isolated back road. The motive seemed shockingly clear-cut: Mr. King, who had come out of a stint in prison, was a committed white supremacist, his body a billboard of racist tattoos, including one depicting a black man hanged in a noose.
Louvon Harris, a sister of Mr. Byrd’s who planned to attend the execution, said on Tuesday that Mr. King’s death by lethal injection would not compare to the way he had tortured her brother. “He’s not going through any pain,” she said. “He’s not chained and bound and dragged on a concrete road, swinging back and forth like a sack of potatoes, with an arm coming off and being decapitated or nothing like that.”
“When you look at it at that angle,” she continued, “I don’t have sympathy.”
Less than a year after the killing, Mr. King became the first white man in modern Texas history to be sentenced to death for killing a black person. This was a troubling milestone given that, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, 344 black people were lynched in the 73 years after Reconstruction, a tally that included only documented lynchings and that stopped in 1950.
There have been several other such death sentences in Texas since, including one handed down to an accomplice in the killing, Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was executed in 2011. But Mr. King’s was the first.
This has been on Ms. Harris’s mind.
“When you think about so many others that had to bury a loved one because of hate and didn’t get justice at all,” she said, talking of calls she had received from people with their own stories of racial mistreatment that were never addressed. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The murder of Mr. Byrd led Texas to pass the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2001, strengthening punishments for crimes motivated by bigotry. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed into federal law, broadening the ability of the federal government to prosecute hate crimes. The legacies of the murder also include the Byrd Foundation, begun by Mr. Byrd’s siblings to “promote racial healing and cultural diversity through education.”
But there is the broad campaign for racial justice, and there is justice in this specific case.
The execution on Wednesday was most likely the last discrete punitive act by the state in response to Mr. Byrd’s murder, beyond the day-to-day incarceration of Shawn Allen Berry, the third man involved in the killing, who is not up for parole until 2038.
Mr. Byrd’s grave in Jasper, Tex. The murder of Mr. Byrd led Texas to pass the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act in 2001, strengthening punishments for crimes motivated by bigotry.CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times
For some in Jasper, the execution was a resolution long sought, most likely the last time journalists would pour into town for interviews. The past 21 years have been painful for the town.
[Read more here about how Jasper has struggled with the legacy of the killing.]
“The white people would like to just forget about it,” said the Rev. Ronald Foshage, pastor of St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Jasper, who has spent the years consoling the Byrd family as well as Mr. King’s anguished father, who died in 2011. Father Foshage understood the impulse: It has been hard for everyone, scaring away business from the town and staining the reputation of a community that has been genuinely trying to heal. But he did not share it.
“It will never go away,” he said.
Closure, a word as easy to say as it is difficult to realize, is not something Ms. Harris is expecting. She did not find it when she attended the execution of Mr. Brewer, who, after a last meal so plentiful that it put an end to last meal requests in Texas, made no statement of remorse, even telling a journalist beforehand that he would “do it all over again.”
The execution “doesn’t change the fact that hate still exists in society,” Ms. Harris said.
It would not give the last 21 years back to Mr. Byrd, she said. It would not take away the 21 years Mr. King was “still alive and breathing,” corresponding with fans and pushing appeals in court.
“It’s not completely healing,” she said. “It’s just finding justice.”
Another sister of Mr. Byrd’s, Betty Boatner, who still lives in Jasper and takes care of their aging father, had no plans to attend the execution, as she had not attended the last one. For one thing, she had a sore throat, she said, and needed to rest.
“I really haven’t sat and thought about it, how it would make me feel,” she said on Tuesday morning. She had forgiven her brother’s killers a long time ago, she said. It still hurts, of course. And she did not object to the execution on Wednesday. It is what the jury decided, and that is the law. But what the justice system decides and what she seeks, these are two separate things.
“I’ve been moving on by the grace of God, and whatever the state says that he deserves, the state has a right to make that decision,” she said. “It is what it is.”