Convicted racist ringleader in Jasper dragging death executed

The racist man behind one of the grisliest hate crimes in recent U.S history was executed Wednesday in Huntsville for the dragging death of a black man.

The Supreme Court shot down a last-minute appeal attempt by John William King around 6:30 p.m. He died by lethal injection about forty minutes later.

It took more than two decades for the state to carry out the justice.  The man who was Jasper County Sheriff at the time of the murder said the wheels of justice turn mighty slow. The family says they are grateful it is over.

King received lethal injection for the slaying nearly 21 years ago of James Byrd Jr., who was chained to the back of a truck and dragged for nearly 3 miles along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper, Texas. The 49-year-old Byrd 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 Byrd was targeted because he was black. King was openly racist and had offensive tattoos on his body, including one of a black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree, according to authorities.

At 7:08 p.m., the mastermind behind a racist attack that shocked Texas and the country was put to death.

Before Texas officials started the lethal injection. King declined to make a final statement. Instead, he provided a bizarre written one that said: “Capital Punishment: Them without the capital get the punishment.”

Two of Byrd's sisters traveled to Huntsville to witness the execution.

Clara Byrd Taylor says she felt nothing while watching King die.

“He didn't look at us. He showed no signs of remorse,” Taylor said. “He just laid there with his eyes closed.”

While King’s life came to an end with his eyes closed, the world’s eyes were on King in June 1998.

The killing of Byrd was a hate crime that 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 appellate lawyers had tried to stop his execution, arguing King's constitutional rights were violated because his trial attorneys didn't present his claims of innocence and conceded his guilt.

 The U.S. Supreme Court rejected King's last-minute appeal.

"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 attorneys, wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court.

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

Billy Fields was one of Byrd's cousins. He lives in North Texas now and says this day took far too long.      

“I wish they would burn in hell. It's about time, “Fields said. “Why did we wait 21 years to bring closure to this? 21 years of taxpayers’ dollars on an idiot. How do you justify that?”

Byrd's death spurred legislative changes in a day when hate crime wasn't a term often used. Both Texas and Congress passed bills that bear his name.

“I was just happy that this moment was over,” Taylor said. “That that part of the challenge was over and we can move on to the next thing.”

“At least it will send a message that we don't tolerate that here in Texas,” Fields said.

Over the years, King had 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," was the second man executed for Byrd's killing. 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 execution. In a 2001 interview with the AP, King said he was an "avowed racist" but wasn't "a hate-monger murderer."