Convicted ringleader in Texas dragging death set to be executed

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A man who orchestrated one of the most gruesome hate crimes in US history was set to be executed Wednesday for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. nearly 21 years ago.

John William King, who is white and an avowed racist, was put on death row for chaining Byrd to the back of a truck and dragging his body for nearly 3 miles along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper, Texas. The 49-year-old Byrd, who was black, was alive for at least 2 miles before his body was ripped to pieces in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998.

Prosecutors said he was targeted because he was black.

Authorities say the 44-year-old King is openly racist and has offensive tattoos on his body, including one of a black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree.

If executed, King would be the fourth inmate put to death this year in the US and the third in Texas, the nation's busiest capital punishment state.

The hate crime put a national spotlight on Jasper, a town of about 7,600 residents near the Texas-Louisiana border that was branded with a racist stigma it has tried to shake off ever since. Local officials say the reputation is undeserved.

King's attorneys have asked the US Supreme Court to halt his execution, arguing that King's trial lawyers violated his constitutional rights by not presenting his claims of innocence and conceding his guilt. His lawyers cited a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in a Louisiana case in which the justices said that a lawyer for a criminal defendant cannot override his client's wish to maintain his innocence at trial.

"From the time of indictment through his trial, Mr. King maintained his absolute innocence, claiming that he had left his co-defendants and Mr. Byrd sometime prior to his death and was not present at the scene of his murder. Mr. King repeatedly expressed to defense counsel that he wanted to present his innocence claim at trial," A. Richard Ellis, one of King's appellate attorneys, wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court.

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This April 12, 2019, photo shows the gravesite of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was killed on June 7, 1998, after he was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for nearly three miles along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper in what is considered one of the most gruesome hate crime murders in recent Texas history. (AP Photo/Juan Lozano)
This April 12, 2019, photo shows a bench donated by a foundation started by the family of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. The bench is located in front of the county courthouse in Jasper, Texas, where two of the three men convicted for Byrd's death, considered one of the most gruesome hate crime murders in recent Texas history, were tried. John William King, the convicted ringleader of Byrd's death, is set to be executed on Wednesday, April. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Juan Lozano)
In this Friday, April 12, 2019, photo Gary Gatlin, the interim mayor of Jasper, Texas, discusses the legacy of James Byrd Jr.'s death and its impact on Jasper. Byrd was killed on June 7, 1998, after he was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for nearly three miles along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper. John William King, the convicted ringleader of Byrd's death, is set to be executed on Wednesday, April. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Juan Lozano)
In this Friday, April 12, 2019, photo Jasper city council member Rashad Lewis stands in front of a restaurant in Jasper, Texas, after discussing the legacy of James Byrd Jr.'s death and its impact on Jasper. Byrd was killed on June 7, 1998, after he was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for nearly three miles along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper. John William King, the convicted ringleader of Byrd's death, is set to be executed on Wednesday, April. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Juan Lozano)
This Friday, April 12, 2019, photo shows a park named after James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was killed on June 7, 1998, after he was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for nearly three miles along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper in what is considered one of the most gruesome hate crime murders in recent Texas history. John William King, the convicted ringleader of Byrd's death, is set to be executed on Wednesday, April. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Juan Lozano)
Louvon Harris, left, covers her face as Clara Taylor, right, both sisters of James Byrd Jr., looks back while answering a question after witnessing the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, in Huntsville, Texas. Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., was executed Wednesday. Brewer was convicted for his participation in chaining Byrd to the back of a pickup truck, dragging the black man along a rural East Texas road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church cemetery in 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
FILE - In this Sept. 21, 2011, file photo, Ricky Jason wears a photograph of James Byrd Jr. outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit before the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer in Huntsville, Texas. An East Texas town's history as the place where a black man, Byrd, was dragged to death by three white men nearly 21 years ago will again come to the forefront this week as the ringleader responsible for the brutal killing, John William King, is scheduled to be executed. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
Kelly Epstein, right, looks at Ricky Jason's poster outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit before the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, in Huntsville, Texas. Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., was executed Wednesday. Brewer was convicted for his participation in chaining Byrd to the back of a pickup truck, dragging the black man along a rural East Texas road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church cemetery in 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Clara Taylor, right, pauses before answering a question as Louvon Harris, left, both sisters of James Byrd Jr., listens after witnessing the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, in Huntsville, Texas. Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., was executed Wednesday. Brewer was convicted for his participation in chaining Byrd to the back of a pickup truck, dragging the black man along a rural East Texas road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church cemetery in 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Clara Taylor, center, looks up to the sky as she answers a question as her her daughter, Tiffany, right, and sister Louvon Harris, left, listen after all three witnessed the execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, in Huntsville, Texas. Harris and Taylor are the sisters of James Byrd Jr. Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., was executed Wednesday. Brewer was convicted for his participation in chaining Byrd to the back of a pickup truck, dragging the black man along a rural East Texas road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church cemetery in 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Corrections officers keep watch from a guard tower outside the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit before the scheduled execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011, in Huntsville, Texas. Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr., is set for execution Wednesday. Brewer was convicted for his participation in chaining Byrd to the back of a pickup truck, dragging the black man along a rural East Texas road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church cemetery in 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
President Barack Obama, greets invited guests at a White House reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
President Barack Obama, hugs James Byrd Jr.'s sister, Louvon Harris, while other sister Betty Byrd Boatner, right, gives her applause during a White House reception commemorating the enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Members of the New Black Panthers gather before a rally in Paris, Texas, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. Supporters of a mother whose 24-year-old son was run over and dragged beneath a pickup truck in East Texas rallied with members of the New Black Panther Party in an organized the event to call attention to what they say was a racially charged lynching comparable to the notorious dragging death of James Byrd 10 years ago in Jasper. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Jimmy Blackwell, of Fort Worth, Texas, yells during a rally in Paris, Texas, Monday, Nov. 17, 2008. Supporters of a mother whose 24-year-old son was run over and dragged beneath a pickup truck in East Texas rallied with members of the New Black Panther Party in an organized the event to call attention to what they say was a racially charged lynching comparable to the notorious dragging death of James Byrd 10 years ago in Jasper. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Betty Byrd Boatner, right, listens during a 10th anniversary tribute to her brother, James Byrd Jr., Saturday, June 7, 2008 in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death 10 years ago during the early morning hours of June 7, 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Holly Blake, 2, plays in the James Byrd Jr. Memorial Park Thursday, June 5, 2008 in Jasper, Texas. Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death down a country road 10 years ago in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Betty Byrd Boatner pauses at the gravesite of her brother Thursday, June 5, 2008 in Jasper, Texas. James Byrd Jr. was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to death down a country road 10 years ago in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Clara Taylor, right, and Louvon Harris, both sisters of James Byrd Jr., answers questions outside the Jasper County Courthouse after the first day of testimony in the capital murder trial of Shawn Allen Berry on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 1999 in Jasper, Texas. Berry is the third defendant charged in the dragging death of Byrd. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Jasper County Assistant District Attorney Pat Hardy displays the chain allegedly used to drag James Byrd Jr. to his death during a break in the trial of Lawrence Russell Brewer Thursday, Sept. 16, 1999, at the Brazos County Courthouse in Bryan, Texas. The chain was introduced into evidence Thursday. Brewer is the second of three white men charged with capital murder in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. near Jasper, Texas. (AP Photo/Pool, Butch Ireland)
Lawrence Russell Brewer enters the courtroom before the start of his trial Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1999 at the Brazos County Courthouse in Bryan, Texas. Brewer is the second of three white men charged with capital murder in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. near Jasper, Texas. (AP Photo/Butch Ireland, Pool)
Lawrence Russell Brewer, left, talks with his lawyer Doug Barlow before his trial begins Tuesday, Sept. 14, 1999, at the Brazos County Courthouse in Bryan, Texas. Brewer is the second of three white men charged with capital murder in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. near Jasper, Texas. (AP Photo/Butch Ireland, Pool)
James Byrd Sr. sits on his front porch after a press conference Tuesday, May 18, 1999, in Jasper, Texas. Byrd, the father of James Byrd Jr., a black man dragged to death in East Texas, is upset that the state legislature didn't pass a stonger hate crimes bill. The victim's relatives on Tuesday were to discuss the failure of the James Byrd Jr. Act, which would have clarified a current law already on the books. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
FILE - In a Wednesday, April 28, 1999 file photo, Lawrence Russell Brewer is led from the Jasper County courthouse following a change of venue hearing in his capital murder trial for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. , in Jasper, Texas. Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for Byrd’s death, is set for execution Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 for participating in chaining Byrd to the back of a pickup truck, dragging the black man along the road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church and cemetery. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday rejected a similar request to stop the execution.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday turned down King's request for either a commutation of his sentence or a 120-day reprieve.

Over the years, King has also suggested the brutal slaying was not a hate crime, but a drug deal gone bad involving his co-defendants.

King, who grew up in Jasper and was known as "Bill," will be the second man executed in the case. Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed in 2011. The third participant, Shawn Allen Berry, was sentenced to life in prison.

King declined an interview request from The Associated Press in the weeks leading up to his planned execution.

In a 2001 interview with the AP, King said he was an "avowed racist" but wasn't "a hate-monger murderer."

Louvon Byrd Harris, one of Byrd's sisters, said she and other family members plan to attend King's execution.

"I think it will be a message to the world that when you do something horrible like that, that you have to pay the high penalty," she said.

Harris said she doesn't expect King to be remorseful. Brewer said nothing to Byrd's family before he was put to death.

"All they are going to do is go to sleep. 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," Harris said.

Billy Rowles, who led the investigation into Byrd's death when he was sheriff in Jasper County, said after King was taken to death row in 1999, he offered to detail the crime as soon as his co-defendants were convicted. When Rowles returned, all King would say was, "I wasn't there."

"He played us like a fiddle, getting us to go over there and thinking we're going to get the rest of the story," said Rowles, now the sheriff of neighbouring Newton County.

A week before Brewer was executed in 2011, Rowles said he visited Brewer, who confirmed "the whole thing was Bill King's idea."

Mylinda Byrd Washington, another of Byrd's sisters, said she and her family will work through the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing to ensure her brother's death continues to combat hate everywhere.

"I hope people remember him not as a hate crime statistic. This was a real person. A family man, a father, a brother and a son," she said.

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