Back to Jasper
In Jasper, on the night of June 6, 1998, Bill King, Shawn Berry, and Russell Brewer offered James Byrd Jr. a ride home. The next morning, according to the police report, “the body of a black male, minus the head and arm was discovered on Huff Creek Road.” Byrd never arrived home. Instead, King and Brewer chained him to the back of Berry’s pick-up truck and dragged him to his death down that long, dark road. Almost immediately Jasper police concluded that Byrd’s death was a hate crime, one of the worst in recent memory. In his recent book (Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder in Jasper, Texas), University of Texas Press) psychology professor Ricardo C. Ainslie examines the life, crime, and punishment of Bill King. The Observer interviewed Ainslie via e-mail about King’s development as a racist murderer, a complex story in which a conflicted childhood, the criminal justice system, and white supremacist gangs play a significant role.
Texas Observer: As a psychologist, what interested you about Bill King to write a full-length study of his involvement in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr.?
Ricardo Ainslie: The murder of James Byrd was a heinous crime that drew national and international attention. The brutality of the murder—a man being chained by the ankles and dragged to his death for three miles over dirt and asphalt—was itself deeply unsettling. However, it was the crime’s racial character that defined it. Authorities found a stack of racist literature in Bill King’s apartment, and King, like his fellow former prison gang member, Russell Brewer, were both covered with racist and satanic tattoos. But why did King do it? What brings a man to commit such a crime? These are the questions that drew me to this story.
TO: You state that you found the contradiction between Bill King’s amiable persona and his hideous actions disarming. But perhaps because of this distance between his charm and his actions, you conclude that he might be rather more like the rest of us than we would care to imagine.
RA: I do believe that in Bill King we see a dim and distant reflection of ourselves. Hannah Arendt first coined the term “banality of evil” to capture her experience of Adolph Eichmann and the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust. They seemed so ordinary, yet they had done such horrendous things. The same could be said of the soldiers who took part in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. When I see and read about the soldiers charged with abusing prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, they, too, seem quite ordinary and unremarkable. For most, those who knew them back home, before they went to Iraq, would not have predicted such behavior. Similarly, those who knew Bill King while he was growing up—his friends, family, teachers—would not have predicted that he would someday commit murder, let alone this kind of a murder.
We tend to comfort ourselves with the thought that those who act in profoundly disturbing ways are fundamentally different from us. Much to our surprise, as often as not this turns out not to be the case. I am not necessarily placing these or other crimes on equal footing with what was done to James Byrd. This was a uniquely horrible crime. But the psychodynamics that created it are not as far removed from us as we care to think.
TO: Since the age of 17 until 1998, when he turned 23, Bill King had spent only 14 months of his life outside of jails. How does his experience of incarceration, especially his exposure to white supremacist gangs in Texas prisons, help to explain his role in James Byrd Jr.’s death?
RA: Bill King’s time in a hard core Texas prison, an infamous “gladiator unit,” is one of the key variables that help us understand his transformation from small town, small-time criminal to a man who identified thoroughly with the racist ideologies of the white supremacist movement. There is no evidence that King held racist views prior to going to prison and he did not come from a particularly racist family. It is his exposure to the prison’s race gang culture that shapes King’s own ideological commitments.
However, that is not enough to explain Bill King’s racial beliefs. It is the confluence of this ideology with the particular psychological issues that King had been wrestling with for years that allowed the prison’s racist culture to speak to him so powerfully, so pervasively. And, perhaps, that made it more difficult for him to leave those beliefs behind when he left prison.
TO: As a teenager Bill King spent much time in the Beto Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Isn’t his development as a racist murderer really an indictment of the way in which the citizens of Texas choose to punish its offenders?
RA: I say in the book that, “Few within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice believed they could meaningfully affect the lives of significant numbers of these prisoners.” I believe that this is a problem of enormous complexity. That statement was partly speaking to the high rates of recidivism among inmates sent to our prisons. I also speak to the legacy of prison reform movements. Do we have an answer to the conundrum of how to help people to live better, more meaningful lives? It doesn’t seem so. I’m reluctant to place the blame for this entirely on the shoulders of the prison system. The Corrections Officers I met seemed like decent enough people. But the system is under-funded, and COs are responsible for too many inmates. The net effect is that we aren’t really in control of vital aspects of what goes on in our prisons. This is part of our collective responsibility, in so far as we don’t put tax dollars into fixing the system.
But there’s another way in which this isn’t exclusively the fault of our prisons. In Long Dark Road I suggest that, in the end, Bill King’s failures are also our collective failures. By this I do not intend to shift responsibility away from Bill King for actions he committed, but rather my intent is to emphasize the idea that we live in a society. In every town and community there are individuals who are struggling with significant conflicts. If we don’t respond to them, if we ignore them, they often come back to haunt us later. This is, in part, what happened to Bill King, a man who dropped out of school in 10th grade following the death of his mother.
He lived in a community where there were few resources, few services, and, perhaps, where no one could really see what was going on with him. It is true, too, that he was recalcitrant and rejecting of efforts by his family and others to set him on a better course. But in the end, all of us—the victims and those of us who have to pick up the pieces—pay for those failures.
TO: You mention that officials at TDCJ didn’t notice that many white offenders were adorning their bodies with racist tattoos. Do prison authorities ignore signs of white supremacist gang activity while identifying Latino gangs as pervasive?
RA: Bill King entered prison with a handful of garden-variety tattoos, none of them with racist content. Although tattooing is illegal in prison, by the time he left prison two years later he was covered from head to toe with tattoos, many of which were unambiguously either gang-related or racist in content. How is it that this can happen in a setting which is presumably monitored closely 24 hours a day? The tattoo artists that worked on King’s skin were equal opportunity artists. That is, they also did African American, Asian, and Latino inmates’ tattoos. Tattooing appears to be an enormous industry at least in some Texas prisons, and, like other illegal activity (volumes of pornography and racist literature of every stripe, violence against fellow inmates, drugs, and other forms of contraband) a significant percentage of it goes undetected.
It isn’t my impression that white supremacist gangs get less attention than Latino or African American gangs. King described the fact that fellow white supremacist inmates, whose gang affiliations were discovered by authorities, were placed in “Ad Seg” (Administrative Segregation), where they were kept in single cells, isolated from other inmates. One of King’s “mentors” had spent two years in Ad Seg before King met him. Indeed, my impression is that, like inmates of other races, white inmates with gang affiliations exert considerable effort to keep their membership and their activities out of the purview of prison authorities.
TO: Your book seems to draw a great deal from the perspective of law enforcement and the prosecution. It seems that you are making the case for King’s execution as a “poster child” for the death penalty. But we know that there’s a lot wrong with the Texas death penalty system. Do you worry that focusing on King might enable us to forget these other problems?
RA: I’m not sure how my book could be construed as making Bill King a “poster child” for the death penalty. If anything, my book shows us that, notwithstanding his actions, he’s a human being with very real human struggles. In my view this awareness makes us less inclined toward the death penalty, not more. It certainly has influenced my own views. When I first visited King on death row I was not opposed to the death penalty; I am opposed to it today.
As for my favorable portrayal of Texas law enforcement and Jasper’s District Attorney in the book, I stand by that. These men made the independent assessment that the murder of James Byrd, Jr. was a hate crime and they alone made the decision to bring in the FBI less than 24 hours after the discovery of the victim’s brutalized remains. This decision sent a clear message to the African American community that this case would not be handled as it might have been in the 1920s or 1930s or even more recently. Given that we have the death penalty in Texas, and given the nature of this crime, there was no way that the death penalty would not be sought against the three men who murdered James Byrd, Jr. Not to do so would have been read as a racist act, shielding the perpetrators from the full extent of the law due to the victim’s race. Whatever their personal views on the death penalty (my understanding is that the DA sought counsel on this question from his priest, by the way), there is no way they could have gone for a lesser penalty without bringing the opprobrium of the world down upon themselves.
As for the problems that exist with the death penalty system in Texas, I think they are clearly reflected in Bill King’s defense and, as they pertain to King’s case, they are clearly documented in Long Dark Road. At the beginning of his trial, King’s attorneys made no opening statement in King’s defense and they chose not to make an opening statement when it came time to start of the defense phase of the trial. Most unusual. In addition, they only presented three witnesses in defense of their client and these were quite weak (a former roommate, a former boss—both of whom testified that King made racist remarks “in private”—and a prisoner who had been a fellow inmate of King’s at the George Beto Unit, who was anything but a sympathetic character). King’s attorneys presented no experts to counter the prosecution’s case. In their closing remarks, King’s attorneys did not even make use of evidence presented by the prosecution that ran counter to the prosecution’s thesis that James Byrd was conscious when he was dragged (a key contention to the prosecution’s death penalty case, given that it had to be demonstrated that Byrd was “kidnapped” in order for the murder to qualify as a capital crime).
In my reading of the evidence, it is quite plausible that Byrd was already unconscious when he was chained and dragged behind the pickup. If that were so, brutal and racist as the murder was it would not have qualified it for the maximum penalty. Finally, after the jury had found King guilty of the murder, and as the jury was deliberating on the question of life in prison versus the death penalty, one of King’s attorney’s presented him with a multi-page “creative rights agreement” giving him and his colleague the rights to King’s story and to a substantial percentage of profits that might be derived therefrom. This would appear to be a possible conflict of interest and perhaps an ethical violation, given that, presumably, King’s story would be worth more were King found guilty. This material is thoroughly explored in the book, and it points to significant deficits in King’s legal representation, problems that are one variant of the representation issues that have been found in other death penalty cases.
TO: Jasper seems to be a town that has significant psychological wounds, many of them racial. In one chapter you write that during the 1920s there were several lynchings of blacks by whites in the region, including a notorious dragging death that most present residents seem to know about. And it wasn’t until James Byrd, Jr.’s murder that the townspeople tore down a fence separating whites from blacks in the cemetery. What effect has Byrd’s death had upon race relations in Jasper?
RA: Jasper, I know, has long ago grown tired of this story. For 18 months after the murder of James Byrd, Jr., journalists from all over the world were in Jasper covering the story. The three trials (even though one of them actually took place in Bryan-College Station) were extremely taxing for Jasper and its citizens. Then there were the two books, a documentary film, and stories in popular magazines. Sadly, this is part of the cost to a community when something of this nature takes place there. But these events draw such interest precisely because there is something both important and powerful about them, and, at some level, I suspect the people of Jasper understand that.
I am presently working on a second Jasper book, which is about the impact of the murder on the community. I spent over three years in Jasper, interviewing people from all walks of life about the murder and their thoughts about it. I think it is fair to say that Jasper, as a community, was traumatized by what took place there. I think that this is true notwithstanding the fact that people had many different reactions to the murder (sometimes because of their race, sometimes because of their relationship to James Byrd or to the perpetrators).
One of my other projects in Jasper was to create a photographic exhibit that documented my understanding of how the community responded to the murder and why it was that Jasper did not erupt into violence in the aftermath of the murder. The ingredients were all there: the rage, the anxiety, and the Black Panther and the Ku Klux Klan marches. I believe that the reason it did not has a great deal to do with the formal and informal leadership that is a direct legacy of the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s. I, like many others who came to Jasper, was surprised to find an African American mayor and black city council members. The president of the school board was black, as was the president of the Chamber of Commerce. The head of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments was African American, as was the CEO of the local hospital (the second-largest employer in town). I was most impressed with the members of the Jasper Ministerial Alliance. I interviewed a great many of them. These individuals had been meeting monthly for eight years prior to the James Byrd murder. They knew one another well. In sum, it is out of the matrix of these relationships that Jasper endured what took place there. My aim is not to suggest that Jasper is a utopian community. It is not. But despite its poverty and its remoteness, I
hink that Jasper evolved, over the years, the “social capital” that helped it absorb the horror that took place there. These issues are also taken up in my second Jasper book, which I’m in the process of completing. As for race relations, some in Jasper will tell you that the murder woke people up to the realities of racism in the community, others will tell you that things haven’t changed that much.
Former Observer intern Patrick Timmons received his Ph.D. from UT-Austin and is an assistant professor of Latin American history in Augusta, Georgia. He studies the intractability of violence in human societies.