White supremacist gang member Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed Wednesday evening for the infamous dragging death slaying of James Byrd Jr., a black man from East Texas.
Byrd, 49, was chained to the back of a pickup truck and pulled whip-like to his death along a bumpy asphalt road in one of the most grisly hate crime murders in recent Texas history.
Brewer, 44, was asked if he had any final words, to which he replied: “No. I have no final statement.”
He glanced at his parents watching through a nearby window, took several deep breaths and closed his eyes. A single tear hung on the edge of his right eye as he was pronounced dead at 6:21 p.m., 10 minutes after the lethal drugs began flowing into his arms, both covered with intricate black tattoos.
Byrd’s sisters also were among the witnesses in an adjacent room.
“Hopefully, today’s execution of Brewer can remind all of us that racial hatred and prejudice leads to terrible consequence for the victim, the victim’s family, for the perpetrator and for the perpetrator’s family,” Clara Taylor, one of Byrd’s sisters, said.
She called the punishment “a step in the right direction.”
“We’re making progress,” Taylor said. “I know he was guilty so I have no qualms about the death penalty.”
Appeals to the courts for Brewer were exhausted and no last-day attempts to save his life were filed.
Besides Brewer, John William King, now 36, also 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,” Billy Rowles, the retired Jasper County sheriff who first investigated the horrific scene, said. “That’s kind of cruel but that’s reality.”
It was about 2:30 a.m. on a 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 where 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. 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 241/2-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 which continues – many say unfairly – to brand Jasper more than a decade later.
King was tried first, in Jasper. Brewer’s trial was moved 150 miles away to Bryan. Berry was tried back in Jasper. DNA showed Byrd’s blood on all three of them.
Brewer was from Sulphur Springs, about 180 miles to the northwest, and had been convicted of cocaine possession. He met King, a convicted burglar from Jasper, in a Texas prison where they got involved in a KKK splinter group known as the Confederate Knights of America and adorned themselves with racist tattoos. Evidence showed Brewer had violated parole and was involved in a number of burglaries and thefts in the Jasper area.
King had become friends with Berry and moved into Berry’s place. Evidence showed Brewer came to Jasper to stay with them.