Justice in Jasper

Who remembers Bill King? The twenty-four-year-old East Texan was sentenced to death in February, and is confined to a death-row cell in Huntsville. His commonplace name makes him easy to forget, until he is associated with the name of his victim: James Byrd Jr.

The crime itself is unforgettable. Allegedly with the help of two friends, King beat, stripped, and chained Byrd to the back of a pick-up truck, and dragged him down a Jasper road, until his body was ripped to pieces. The men deposited what was left of Byrd’s body beside a black cemetery – apparently as a message to the black community – then went for barbecue. Jasper County prosecuting attorney Pat Hardy described the murder as a lynching: “Three robed riders came straight out of hell…. Instead of a rope, they used a chain, and instead of horses, they had a pick-up truck.”

After the jury convicted King and sentenced him to death, Governor Bush commented, “The brutal beating, dragging, and murder of James Byrd was a horrible, despicable crime and those responsible deserve the ultimate punishment. The jury sent a clear message that Texas will not tolerate hate and violence.”

Yet the state’s use of lethal injection is itself a violent act, lending official sanction to the community’s hatred of the criminal. Since taking office in 1995, Governor Bush has presided over nearly 100 executions. And during the past legislative session, he opposed several attempts to provide a more open and deliberate process of clemency, and – even after an emotional meeting with James Byrd Jr.’s daughter – continued his opposition to hate crimes legislation.

Support for the death penalty is not exclusively a conservative position, nor is it unique to Texas. Seventy-five percent of Texans say they favor the death penalty (a percentage comparable to the rest of the nation, at 71 percent). At the time of Bill King’s trial, it seemed that everyone in the town of 8,000 – conservatives and liberals, blacks and whites, men and women – agreed the state should execute Bill King. But interviews with African-American and white residents suggest that the death penalty does not have the same depth of support in each community. And in the case of Bill King, there are subtle and important differences between the reasoning of blacks and whites. African Americans in Jasper, despite indicating some opposition to the death penalty, appeared to seek racial justice by means of King’s death sentence. Whites almost unanimously favored King’s execution in order to demonstrate that in Jasper, justice is race-blind – an attitude embraced by the prosecution. “The death penalty,” the prosecutor argued, “is something to let people know there’s not going to be any of this racist behavior.” The same sentence will be pursued against Lawrence Brewer, King’s alleged accomplice now on trial in Bryan.

According to George Kendall, staff lawyer at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the death penalty is itself derived from the once commonplace practice of lynching African Americans. Between the end of the Civil War and the twenties, when African Americans suspected of crimes were often brutalized and lynched by white mobs, especially in the South, the state often sanctioned or collaborated in the lynchings. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in part to oppose widespread lynching, and because of the historical continuity between lynching and what came to be called capital punishment, became a standard-bearer in the anti-death penalty movement.

Before 1924, the death penalty in Texas was enforced locally. Due to embarrassment over publicly brutal lynchings and a desire to legitimize and distinguish state-sanctioned execution from lynching, Texas legislators voted to conduct all executions in Huntsville, and to change the method from hanging to electrocution. On February 8, 1924, when the state of Texas electrocuted its first five prisoners, all five were black men. The disproportionate execution of African Americans continues in today’s administration of the death penalty, in Texas and across the nation. Nationally, blacks are represented on death row at three-and-a-half times their proportion in the whole population.

Ninety-two percent of the juveniles on death row in Texas are African-American. The victim’s race also influences the state’s decision. Half of the people murdered in the United States are black, yet of those prosecuted for capital murder and executed, less than 15 percent murdered a black person. It is rare for a white person to get the death penalty for killing an African American. In the U.S. since 1976, when the death penalty was resumed in many states, 142 black inmates have been executed for killing white victims. In that same period, eleven whites have been put to death for killing blacks. Until Bill King’s February death sentence, no white person in Texas had ever received the death penalty for killing an African American, with one exception. In 1854, a white man killed the favorite slave of another white man and was executed for what was essentially considered a property crime.

Texas is also by far the national leader in executions, responsible for one-third of the 566 U.S. executions since 1976. And although 10 percent of the state’s population is African-American, thirty-one percent of those executed have been black. (Nationally, African Americans comprise 12 percent of the population, but 34 percent of those executed.)

On the day the jury in Jasper was deliberating Bill King’s sentence, I asked several black and white Jasperites what they believed would constitute justice. Ferrell Whaley, a white woman who is retired, said, “It’s a good sign if he gets death. It says something about the way things are changing. Thirty years ago, no one would have even looked for the guy.” James Byrd’s sister, Stella Brumley, said, “You have to send a strong message or else we’ll be back to the 1800s. If he lives, there will be those who’ll think he’s a hero.” Reverend Bobby Hudson, the African-American pastor of the Jasper Goodwill Baptist Church, said he opposes the death penalty. “I don’t believe in capital punishment for three reasons,” Hudson said. “I was raised to believe a person’s life doesn’t belong to you. Justice has meant ‘just us’ African Americans get killed. And it goes against my religious beliefs. But if the death penalty is on the books,” he concluded, “King should get what the law calls for. If he gets the death penalty, it means justice is surfacing. The playing field is being made equal.”

King’s crime was brutal and heinous, and the evidence – including a confessional letter King wrote to an accomplice – was overwhelming. Under these circumstances, the only conceivable reason that King would not receive the death penalty would be racism on the jury, comprised of eleven whites and one African American. Refusing the death sentence for King – for the first time since 1854 when a white man might die for killing a black man – would hardly seem just.

And yet what does King’s sentence finally say about racism in Texas? The death sentence, for a white man murdering a black man, might well signal a turning point in race relations in Texas. Yet precisely because of the extreme nature of King’s crime, the sentence may instead serve to obscure the ingrained racism in the historical administration of the death penalty. Whenever the death penalty in Texas is criticized as racist, its proponents will now be able to point to the death sentence for the murder of James Byrd Jr.

By the time the jury began deliberating King’s sentence, a death sentence had become the clear consensus of Jasperites watching the trial. Yet many African-American residents – about half of those I interviewed during the course of the trial – had doubts about the death penalty. (Nationwide, non-white support for the death penalty is 54 percent, while white support is 75 percent.) Jesse Jackson visited Jasper shortly after the murder and called for life without parole for King. “If these three men saw killing as a solution in their sick state,” Jackson said, “then we in our sober and sane state must know killing is not a solution.”

Yet an explicit sentence of life without parole is not an option in Texas. For the jury in King’s trial, the choices were either the death penalty or life imprisonment. Life actually means forty years in jail, before consideration for parole. Many people in the Jasper courtroom, including James Byrd’s sisters, said they would have accepted or favored life without parole for King, if it had been an option. District Attorney Gus James Gray agreed: “If there was some way we could lock him up forever and he could never get out – it should be an option.”

It won’t be an option any time soon. Several bills introduced in the last legislative session proposed life without parole as an alternative to execution. Yet every bill intended to provide alternatives to the death penalty, or at least a more cautious application of it, died in committee. The bills’ sponsors were careful to describe life without parole as a “sentencing option” – not an assault on the death penalty. Lobbying for legislation that provides alternatives to the death penalty is, according to Keith Hampton of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association, a delicate proposition. “What you don’t want,” he says, “is some A.C.L.U. guy [to] walk in and say, ‘This will be the end of the death penalty.'” For practical reasons, death penalty opponents know they cannot openly oppose capital punishment. “No one in elected office will say they’re against the death penalty. That’s seen as practically communistic.” Reverend Charles Moore, an anti-death penalty activist in Austin, describes the Texas anti-death-penalty movement as “not having much power yet.” Supporters are committed, and yet activists feel marginalized, and many progressives in Texas seem to have moved on to other issues.

“Some of the very best people who are concerned about other injustices are completely silent on the death penalty,” says Moore. He notes that polls show that church members, particularly Protestants, are more supportive of the death penalty than others: “Church people tend to be punitive in their attitude towards people who mess up. It’s very strange. All the business you hear in church about redemption, forgiveness – if you commit a crime, then church people don’t believe it applies. And if you commit a capital crime, then you’re beyond the pale. Forgiveness is for small, everyday infractions.”

Americans want to see criminals as aberrant. This is what I sensed in the Jasper courtroom – a determined disidentification with Bill King. If white Jasperites were more keen on killing King, it’s because they were more worried they might have to see themselves or be seen as somehow connected to him. Wylond Hadnot, an African-American high school classmate of James Byrd who lives near the road where he was dragged to death, told the Dallas Morning News: “The whites that stop here, they want to get their guns and drag ’em and shoot ’em. It’s funny. It’s like the whites are ashamed that some of their people could do something so bad. Most of the people that travel through here – strangers still driving up and down this road to look, at all times of the night and day, are Caucasian people.” African-American Jasperites also seemed eager to view King as aberrant, perhaps especially in their comments to me, a white woman. “I don’t hold you responsible for what King did to Byrd,” said Reverend Hudson. And when I asked James Byrd’s daughter, Renee Mullins, about King’s race as a factor in his crime, she said, “I hate to call him Caucasian. He’s not even human.”

If Bill King is viewed as an anomaly, whites may feel better about themselves, and African Americans may feel safer. And in the black community, there is some sense of vindication, because Bill King was indeed sentenced to death. Yet the message of this tragic tale – if there is one – certainly does not seem as “clear” as the Governor would have us believe.

Faulkner Fox is a writer living in Austin, where she teaches at the University of Texas.

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Published at 12:00 am CST