AFTERWORD What Price Justice? BY FAULKNER FOX o 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 conservati_ye position, nor is it unique to Tex Seveifty-five percent of Texans say they favor the death ty \(a percentage comparable to the rest of the naKing’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 sup port 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 Huritsville, and to change the method from han ng to electrocution. On February 8, 192 , when the state of Texas electrocuted its fir t -five prisoners, all five were black men. The disproportionate execution of African Americans continues in today’s ad ministration 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 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, 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 17, 1999
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