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US white supremacist to be executed for 1998 lynching of black man

In 1998, John William King and two other men severely beat James Byrd before dragging him behind a pickup truck.

Photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows John William King.
Photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice shows John William King.
Image: AP/PA Images

A WHITE SUPREMACIST convicted of murdering a black man by dragging him behind a pickup truck is scheduled to be executed today in the US state of Texas.

John William King, 44, one of three men convicted of the June 1998 killing of James Byrd, is to die by lethal injection at the Huntsville penitentiary.

Lawrence Brewer was executed in 2011 for the murder, while Shawn Berry – who cooperated with investigators – was given life in prison.

Berry testified during his trial that he and the two others were out drinking beer and cruising in a truck when he picked up Byrd and drove him to a remote country road.

The men severely beat Byrd before chaining him to the back of the truck.

Byrd was still alive while being dragged along a paved road for some 3.2 kilometres and suffered great pain until he was decapitated when his body hit a concrete drain pipe along the side of the road, a pathologist testified during King’s trial.

His dismembered body was found outside a black church in the small town of Jasper, Texas.

The circumstances surrounding the killing horrified the US public, especially African Americans, who saw in it the unextinguished embers of a brutal racist history.

Some 10 years after King’s conviction, then-president Barack Obama signed a law in the name of Byrd as well as Matthew Shepard, a young gay man murdered the same year, with the aim of strengthening the fight against hate crimes.

Dragging Death Jasper Mylinda Byrd Washington, 66, right, and Louvon Byrd Harris, 61, hold up photographs of their brother James Byrd Jr. Source: Juan Lozano

Reprieve denied 

During the sentencing phase of his trial, attorneys for King argued prison violence compelled him to hook up with a white prison gang and festoon his body with racist tattoos, with attorney H. “Sonny” Cripps saying: 

He wasn’t a racist when he went in, he was when he came out.

But a psychiatrist for the prosecution said the viciousness of the crime “removed all doubt” that death was the appropriate punishment.

The 1999 sentencing of King – a member of the racist group known as the Confederate Knights of America – was the first time since the 1970s that a white man was handed a death sentence in Texas for killing a black man.

His lawyers have since made repeated efforts to have his conviction overturned, but their attempts failed, with the Supreme Court refusing to examine King’s case in 2018.

On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously refused to grant him a reprieve.

If King’s execution is carried out as scheduled, it will be the fourth so far this year in the United States.

But some members of Byrd’s family have opposed capital punishment for his killers, with his son Ross joining protests against Brewer’s 2011 execution, CNN reported.

“You can’t fight murder with murder,” the channel quoted him as saying.

© AFP 2019

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