Rodeo Rider Guilty of Brutal Racial Killing
Third Defendant Is Convicted In Dragging Death in Texas
New York Times
Published: November 19, 1999
A Texas jury found a man guilty of capital murder today but spared him from execution for helping drag a black man to death in one of the grisliest racial killings in recent American history.
The defendant, Shawn Allen Berry, the last of three white men to be tried in the case, was sentenced to life in prison. The two other men have been sentenced to death.
Berry was more of a hometown boy. A would-be cowboy who rode in local rodeos, friends said they'd never heard him express much in the way of racial opinions. "I rode with him in rodeos," one black man said. "He never seemed to have anything against black people."
The jury of seven women and five men, all white, deliberated about 10 hours before reaching its verdict. It then heard more testimony before taking two hours to decide Mr. Berry's punishment. He must serve at least 40 years in prison before he has a chance of parole.
After the verdict was read, Mr. Berry, 24, comforted his weeping girlfriend, Christi Marcontell.
Prosecutors said Mr. Berry was one of three men who killed James Byrd, 49, on June 7, 1998, by chaining him to Mr. Berry's pickup truck and dragging him near Jasper. The other men were John William King and Lawrence Russell Brewer.
Mr. King and Mr. Brewer murdered Mr. Byrd, prosecutors said, because they were avowed racists who had joined a white supremacist gang in prison and wore racist tattoos. Mr. Berry was not known to share their beliefs, but probably joined in for the thrill, they said.
In the punishment phase, nine people testified that Mr. Berry did not meet the death-penalty test of being a future threat to society.
The jury announced it would have no comment. But a statement read in court by the jury foreman said, ''We stand together as a group.''
Mr. King, 25, and Mr. Brewer, 32, were convicted after separate trials this year. They are appealing.
Mr. Berry, the manager of a local movie theater, testified on Tuesday that Mr. King and Mr. Brewer had decided to attack Mr. Byrd after Mr. Berry, drinking beer and driving around town with the other two, offered him a ride.
Mr. Berry said he had tried to intervene when Mr. King and Mr. Brewer began the beating, but froze in fear when Mr. King told him that the same thing would happen to anyone who loved blacks. He watched while Mr. Byrd was killed, he said.
But prosecutors said that Mr. Berry had Mr. Byrd's blood on his clothes and that he might have been driving the truck while Mr. Byrd was being dragged.
Murder case forces Jasper to revisit horror of slaying in June
By Richard Stewart
East Texas Bureau Staff
JASPER - It had been one of the hottest springs in memory in the Piney Woods, with almost no rain for well over a month, and the lakes were so low that many of the boat ramps no longer reached the water. The morning of June 7 offered no hope for change.
Local folks heading to work and church that Sunday morning along Huff Creek Road, an old thoroughfare east of town leading to the Newton County community of Jamestown, made a horrible discovery - a headless body in the road.
The mutilated mass of what had been living, human flesh was right in the middle of the road, between the old Huff Creek Cemetery - long the final resting place for African-Americans from the area - and an old community chapel used now only during cemetery cleanings and other special events.
Lawmen rushing to the area were soon flagged down by other residents. A head had been found in a ditch about a mile away. Actually, it was the upper part of the torso, with the head and right arm attached.
Even after officers found a wallet containing identification for James Byrd Jr. - someone some of them knew well - they couldn't identify the swollen and disfigured face of the severed head by the photograph.
It was easy for the officers to find out what had happened. A trail of what affidavits coldly described as "a brown substance" stained the road - along what must have been a trail of torture - for almost three miles. The trail led for almost two miles and then along a twisty, sandy logging trail for almost another mile to a clearing in the woods.
Byrd had been dragged to death - a horribly brutal means of killing that had been suffered by black men at the hands of whites in the rural South earlier in the century, the horse giving way to the car or truck. It touched a racial nerve across the country.
Word quickly spread around Jasper and then to surrounding towns and cities. Within a day, reporters were making their way to the town of 8,000 - first from Houston and Beaumont and then from other states and countries. The killing was big news in modern America - a country that thought itself far beyond the kind of racial crime associated with an earlier, much more violent era.
Jasper thought itself far beyond that kind of problem, too. It's a pleasant, busy little town, at the intersection of two old trade routes. The rolling, wooded countryside has dozens of tiny communities. There are big lakes, brimming with fat bass luring fishermen to Jasper's motels, resorts and restaurants.
Most Jasper residents thought their town was far more tolerant and sophisticated in racial matters than the smaller surrounding East Texas towns. Some black residents had risen to top positions in the community. There is a black mayor, a black administrator at the hospital. A black is the executive director of the regional council of governments and had been the top officer in the chamber of commerce.
The town that calls itself "The Jewel of the Forest" soon found itself internationally famous as the place where a black man had been dragged to death.
By the time the out-of-town reporters began to show up, three white men had been arrested and were safely behind the locked doors of the Aubrey Cole Law Enforcement Center, which serves as the sheriff's office and jail.
As the jail's front lawn turned into a village of television satellite trucks, protest groups and media-hungry politicians, platoons of local, state and federal law officers met inside to try to figure out just what had happened to James Byrd Jr. out on Huff Creek Road - and why.
Prosecutors now believe they know exactly what happened. Jury selection is set to begin Monday for the trial of John William "Bill" King, 24, the first of the three defendants to be tried on a capital murder charge. The other two accused in the crime are Lawrence Russell Brewer Jr., 31, and Shawn Berry, 23.
Early on, District Attorney Guy James Gray offered Berry, the only defendant to make statements to investigators, a plea bargain of life in prison in exchange for his testimony against the other two. He turned down that offer and after further investigation it wasn't made again.
Now Gray is seeking the death penalty for all three. "I'm pretty soft on the death penalty," Gray said. But when he looks at the album containing photographs from Byrd 's autopsy, he said he "can't bring myself to seek less than death for anybody who can cause this."
For such a well-publicized case, investigators and prosecutors are playing it close to the vest. There are many details that won't be revealed before the trial - and some that nobody may ever know for sure.
There seems to have been little planning in the crime. The three white men were driving around in Berry's gray primer-painted 1982 Ford pickup that Saturday night and seem to have come across Byrd randomly. But perhaps trouble was inevitable. For one thing, they all had conviction records - including Byrd - and all had spent time behind bars.
Berry and King had been buddies since high school. Both had been busted in September 1992 for burglary. Both were sentenced to three months in a prison boot camp and then were released on 10 years probation.
Both were released on Jan. 14, 1993. King, however, violated terms of his probation and failed to complete a restitution program. He was sent to prison in June 1995 and was released on parole two years later.
While in prison, King met Russell Brewer. He had been in and out of prison on burglary and drug charges since 1987. In September 1993 Brewer's parole on a cocaine conviction was revoked. He was finally released in September 1997.
Two or three weeks before Byrd 's slaying, Brewer showed up in Jasper. He moved into King's apartment on the west end of town, across U.S. 190 from the 24-hour Super Wal-Mart. The apartment was leased to King's pregnant girlfriend, Kylie Greeney. The apartment manager thought the teen-age mother-to-be deserved a break.
Greeney, now 18, was working two jobs while King tried to find an employer who would hire an ex-convict. A high school dropout, he had no real education and had held various low-paying jobs over the years.
King and Greeney had a spat shortly after Brewer moved in and she moved out.
King's old buddy, Shawn Berry, was working at Jasper's two-screen theater and living with his girlfriend, Christie Marcontell, 23, and their young son, Michael Montana Berry, at her grandfather's home. They also had had a fight, and Berry had moved in with King and Brewer.
But the apartment manager had had enough of the drinking and partying he said was going on in King's apartment. He issued an eviction notice.
Just what else might have been going on at the apartment besides lots of drinking isn't clear. Brewer and King were both associated with a white supremacy group while in prison and came home covered with tattoos, many of them blatantly racist.
King, for instance, had a tattoo of a cross with a black man hanging from it. He had swastikas, and Nazi-like "SS" symbols. On one arm was an evil-looking woodpecker peeking from beneath a Ku Klux Klan hood.
He liked to brag about them. "He was like that. He was always trying to show off, like he was the wildest and craziest guy around," said John Blank, 20, a car audio technician who ran across the trio from time to time.
"I didn't go behind there to see it," Blank said, "but I saw the expressions on the faces of the people who did see it. It must have been something."
King may have picked up more than tattoos in prison. He had apparently picked up a tough attitude on race. A friend who asked not to be identified said she saw venomous, racial, hate-filled letters King had sent from prison. In his apartment, investigators found a copy of the book, The Turner Diaries, a sort of manifesto to white supremacists, and other literature indicating that his connection with Klan or Klan-like groups had not been left at the jailhouse door.
Nobody in town knew much about Brewer. He was quiet, but seemed jumpy, Blank and others who saw him said. He had no other connection to Jasper except for King and Berry and was seldom seen without them.
Berry was more of a hometown boy. A would-be cowboy who rode in local rodeos, friends said they'd never heard him express much in the way of racial opinions. "I rode with him in rodeos," one black man said. "He never seemed to have anything against black people."
Berry's job at the theater didn't pay much - not enough for him and Marcontell to establish their own home with their son. He had hopes, she said, of getting a job cutting trees or hauling them to sawmills or paper plants. It's hard work, but the pay is about the best an uneducated young man in the woods of East Texas can expect.
Jasper is a small town, less than 30 blocks from end to end. If King, Brewer and Berry didn't travel in the same circles as James Byrd Jr., they had surely seen him around.
At 49, Byrd was practically a fixture in the town. He was a gregarious person who enjoyed drinking and usually walked wherever he went. He didn't own a car and apparently didn't miss having one.
He had graduated in 1967, in the last segregated class at Rowe High School before it was consolidated with Jasper High as part of a desegregation plan. A gifted musician, Byrd played a sweet trumpet in the school band. He also played the piano and had a singing voice that was often in demand at parties.
His parents, James Sr. and Stella Byrd , probably would have preferred that he use his fine voice in the choir at Greater New Bethel Baptist Church, where James Sr. was a deacon.
Byrd told his friends and relatives that he would be famous one day, famous for his singing voice and entertaining. Instead, his fame would come from the terrible way he died.
For a time Byrd left Jasper, living in bigger cities like Houston and Dallas. He married and had three children, but divorced in Dallas and came home.
Like the men accused of killing him, Byrd had a prison record.
His stints in prison began in February 1969 when he arrived at Madison County's Ferguson Unit to serve a two-year sentence for a Houston-area theft.
Over the next 26 years, he was returned to prison six more times, to serve sentences for theft, forgery and violation of parole or mandatory supervision.
Byrd 's last incarceration, for violation of mandatory supervision rules, began at Brazoria County's Ramsey III Unit in February 1995. With credit for good time and time served in the county jail, he again was released on mandatory supervision in July 1996.
Former Jasper Police Chief Harlan Alexander said Byrd "wasn't a bad guy," just one of those people who seems to get into trouble.
Byrd had filed a few lawsuits, including some handwritten from prison. Once he sued over a fight he got into with a friend, and then dropped the lawsuit, saying he and the friend had made up.
Another time he filed a handwritten lawsuit against state District Judge Joe Bob Golden - the judge who will preside at the trials of his accused killers. He complained in that lawsuit that Golden wrongly dismissed a claim he'd made to get money from the state's crime victims' fund. He claimed he was due more than $2,100 for medical bills because a woman had knifed him in the arm in 1991, while he stood outside a housing project talking with friends.
Byrd won an appeals round with the Texas 9th Court of Appeals, but the lawsuit was still pending when he died.
Jasper is a dry town, with beer and wine legally sold only in a few restaurants and clubs where drinkers buy memberships. Most people drive eight miles north to liquor stores just beyond a precinct line if they want to buy alcohol.
Local boys too young to buy beer or liquor would sometimes offer Byrd a ride to a liquor store, Blank said. They'd give him money to buy stuff for them, with a little extra for him to buy whatever he wanted. He preferred wine, according to his friends. Jasper has several good restaurants, but Patrick's, just north of the city limits, is usually acknowledged as the fanciest. It has the requisite chicken-fried steak, but also features chateaubriand. And its waiters know how to make flaming crepes suzette tableside.
Despite his Irish-Catholic first name, owner Patrick Lam is a Flemish Jew who claims to be the only Holocaust survivor in Jasper. He said he has no idea if he was targeted because he's Jewish, but he knows somebody worked hard to break into his restaurant.
Sometime after 1 o'clock on Saturday morning, the thieves apparently first tried removing a large power vent from the restaurant's roof. A fan blocked their entrance. Then they ripped out a window, casing and all. Bars were inside. The doors were too stout. Finally they hacked a hole through a wall to gain entry.
Once inside, they raided the wine and liquor supply and then started carting hundreds of pounds of expensive meat from the freezers. When he came to investigate, Lam found "meat scattered all over the place. It was a total mess."
Nobody has been charged with the burglary, but after the slaying King's and Brewer's probations were revoked on charges of possessing stolen meat. Investigators found boxes labeled for Patrick's inside the refrigerator and freezer at King's apartment.
King and Brewer apparently slept late on Saturday. In the early afternoon, they showed up in the woods of nearby Newton County at the home of a friend of Berry's younger brother, Louis Berry. They didn't stay long and moved on. People who saw them there said they noticed nothing out of the ordinary.
Later they met Berry at the theater, where they often hung out. Marcontell said she came by and talked to Berry in an attempt to make up. He said he was going home to bed early that night. A friend later told her that she saw him driving in his gray pickup late that night. Byrd had been socializing that day as well. Earlier in the afternoon he had been at a bridal shower for a niece at his parent's house in the east-central part of town.
His year-old granddaughter was there and he bounced her on his knee and enjoyed the company of his family.
Later, he walked on to other gatherings, ending up at a party at a friend's house on the other side of U.S. 96, the highway that divides east and west Jasper. A friend who saw him there said he was drinking and laughing and sharing jokes.
The party was almost across town from his apartment, but Byrd started walking home. He was used to doing that. And besides, in Jasper it was common to run across someone who would offer him a ride.
That someone turned out to be Shawn Berry. Before the night was over, prosecutors allege, the offer of a ride became a deadly kidnapping.
In what would turn out to be one of the biggest breaks in the case, a witness who heard the spreading reports of Byrd 's death quickly contacted police and said that as he had returned to his own home that morning, he'd seen Byrd riding along the street in the bed of a gray stepside pickup. That was sometime between 2:30 and 2:45 a.m. It was only a few blocks from the last party Byrd attended that night.
Two or three white men were in the cab of the truck, the witness said.
Berry later told investigators that he'd stopped and given Byrd a ride. He said he didn't know Byrd, but recognized him as somebody who walked around Jasper a lot.
King was upset about giving Byrd a ride, Berry told investigators. He quoted King as cursing and saying, "You don't need to be picking up a (expletive) nigger."
They drove east out of Jasper, stopping at a closed convenience store. It was a place Berry knew well. He had lived in that area years before.
There are at least three stories of what happened next. Berry gave investigators two different versions. King later said in a letter sent to the Dallas Morning News that he and Brewer changed places with Byrd , getting into the bed of the truck while he got inside with Berry. King said Berry then drove Brewer and him back to their apartment, where they spent the rest of the night.
But investigators and prosecutors say there is far too much evidence that ties all three men with what they think really happened next.
In his first version, Berry said King took over the driving when the group left the store. Later, he said Byrd got into the cab of the truck while Brewer and King got into the back. In both versions, he said the group drove on for a few miles, turning onto Huff Creek Road and then up the little sandy side trail.
They went about a mile. Any vehicle would have had to slow to a walking pace to navigate the deeply rutted trail. If Byrd had felt any premonition of what was going to happen, he surely could have run into the surrounding woods and brush.
They arrived at a small clearing. Marcontell said it was a place Berry knew well as a safe and secluded spot for locals to go out under the moonlight and drink beer without having to fear the law.
King claimed that Berry walked into the clearing to make a deal to buy illegal steroids from Byrd . Investigators said they have found little evidence that Berry used steroids and none that Byrd sold them.
Berry said that when they reached the clearing, King said he was "fixin' to scare the (expletive) out of this nigger."
Whatever happened, investigators believe there was a fight in the clearing. "It was the investigator's opinion that the upturned grass, disturbed dirt . . . and the broken beer bottle are consistent with signs of a struggle," they wrote in affidavits.
In the clearing the investigators also found several items that could have fallen out of a truck while someone was being pulled out, or that could have been left during a struggle.
There were some beer bottles, a wrench set, a can of spray paint, cigarettes and a cigarette lighter, the affidavits said. Investigators also said a compact disc by the group Kiss was found at the scene. Later, they noted that an empty case for a CD of the same title was found in Berry's pickup.
Of particular interest were the little wrench set and the lighter. The wrench set had the name "Berry" on it. The lighter was engraved with the word "Possum," which King's girlfriend, Kylie Greeney, said had been King's prison nickname. It also had a triangular Ku Klux Klan symbol.
Berry said his two companions began to beat Byrd . His lawyer, Joseph "Lum" Hawthorn of Beaumont, said Berry tried to get between Byrd and the assailants. But prosecutors said blood on Berry's shoes and other forensic evidence indicate he had more to do with the beating.
After the beating, Berry told investigators, Brewer sprayed Byrd 's face with black spray paint.
And later Berry said he noticed that Brewer, who was wearing sandals, had an injured toe; he said Brewer told him he hurt it when he kicked Byrd .
In his first account, Berry told police he ran away during the beating and then got back into the truck as King drove away from the clearing. Smashed brush along the trail indicates that at one point the truck stopped and backed into the undergrowth before resuming its trip.
Berry said he asked King if he was just going to leave Byrd out in the clearing and King answered, "We're starting The Turner Diaries early," perhaps alluding to the racial warfare depicted in that book.
After the truck turned onto the pavement of Huff Creek Road, Berry said, Brewer looked toward the back and, using an obscenity, said Byrd was "bouncing all over the place." Berry said he then looked and saw Byrd being dragged behind the truck.
Just when Byrd died is hard to say. Early on, investigators said they thought he had been beaten unconscious before he was chained by the ankles to the back of the truck. But autopsy reports indicate he may have tried to support himself on his elbows and forearms before he died. How fast they traveled wasn't revealed, but the trail of blood and flesh weaved from one side of the road to the other and back again. Then, coming around a curve to the left, Byrd 's body apparently bounced into the ditch on the right side of the road, hitting the ragged edge of a concrete culvert just below the right arm.
The impact ripped the arm, shoulder, neck and head from the rest of the body, which continued to be dragged for another mile.
The once-bright orange and yellow spray-painted circles that marked the places where investigators found blood, flesh and other evidence along the route of horror have faded almost to black now. It's impossible to find the outline of the body that once marked the pavement beside the old cemetery. The stark word "HEAD" with a line pointing to the ditch and culvert has faded from view.
Word that someone had seen Byrd riding in the back of a gray stepside pickup was the break investigators needed. Jasper is small enough that police officers often remember the vehicles of the people they deal with and it didn't take long for somebody to mention that Shawn Berry had a pickup that fit the description. That also fit with the tool set marked "Berry."
He was arrested as he left the movie theater Sunday night. The initial stop was for outstanding traffic warrants, but soon he was at the sheriff's department being questioned about the Byrd case.
Marcontell said she got a call early Monday morning to come in and answer some questions. Even though it was the wee hours of the morning, she still thought it was about Berry's traffic case. When she got to the sheriff's office, she saw practically every law enforcement officer in town, and everybody seemed very excited.
She said she was amazed to find that Berry and the others were being linked to the Byrd killing. They had all been together just hours earlier, at the movie theater. She'd come by with young Montana, stopping by before taking the boy to the hospital emergency room for treatment of a bad cold. There was no indication then of anything being terribly wrong, she said, except that King stuck very close to Berry, going with him wherever he went.
Brewer and King were spotted earlier in the day at a house in the nearby town of Roganville where locals often gathered to play volleyball. "They acted kind of weird," said John Blank, "but they always acted kind of weird. They weren't any weirder than usual."
Blank said that while he was there he and some others started talking about the Byrd murder. "That's some sick people, to do something like that," he remembered saying within earshot of King and Brewer, who said nothing.
Armed with information they got from Berry, investigators went to King's apartment. Once there, they found the stolen meat and the two men were brought into custody on a charge of violating their parole.
None of the three has been out of custody since.
Berry has remained inside the Jasper County Jail, coming out only for arraignments. Brewer and King were sent back to state prisons, where they were put in solitary confinement because of their suspected supremacist gang activity. King is now back in the county jail, awaiting his trial.
It is still possible the trial will be moved from Jasper, the judge has said, if enough impartial jurors cannot be found.
Two assistant U.S. attorneys - both former assistant district attorneys from Beaumont who have prosecuted capital murder cases - will aid District Attorney Gray. Federal prosecutors have been interested in the case from the start. But no federal charges were ever brought because investigators concluded that Byrd 's slaying didn't violate federal hate crime laws; his constitutional rights - such as voting or attending public school - were not at issue in the crime.
Federal investigators and the FBI lab in Washington provided vital help for the county, but the upcoming three trials, as well as two unrelated capital murder cases, have strapped the little county's resources. This year the county's taxes were raised 2 cents per $100 valuation just to pay for capital murder trials.
As a final indignity, vandals or souvenir hunters unscrewed the nameplate from the stainless steel cover of Byrd 's vault.
The Byrd case has been used as an argument for strengthening federal or state hate crime laws, but Gray disagrees. "It has always been against the law to do what was done to James Byrd Jr.," he said.
John William "Bill" King, 24, of Jasper, unemployed, unmarried father of one. Given 10 years probation for 1992 burglary. Served three months in prison boot camp. Sent to prison for probation violation in June 1995. Released on parole July 28, 1997.
Shawn Allen Berry, 23, of Jasper, movie theater employee, unmarried father of one. Given 10 years probation in same 1992 burglary with King. Served three months in prison boot camp. Released on probation Jan. 14, 1993.
Lawrence Russell Brewer Jr., 31, of Sulphur Springs, unemployed, single. First went to prison in 1987 after being charged with burglary while serving a seven-year probation for a previous burglary. Paroled in February 1988, sent to prison again in May 1989 for cocaine possession. Paroled in May 1991, returned to prison in February 1994 on parole violation. Released on parole Sept. 5, 1997.