Thirteen years later, the prison-gang culture that sparked the dragging death of James Byrd is still with us.
The remains of James Byrd Jr.’s body were found on a Sunday morning. The 49-year-old African-American father of three had been dumped outside an historically black cemetery in Jasper on June 7, 1998. Investigators would later describe the scene to reporters as the most grisly they had ever experienced. The body was headless and so mangled that a fingerprint analysis would be needed to identify the victim. Sheriff’s deputies on their way to the scene stopped to inspect odd-looking tire marks on the road. When they looked closer, they realized the marks weren’t made by tires. They were trails of dried blood.
The night before, witnesses had seen Byrd climb into a gray pickup truck. Investigators quickly tracked down the pickup, which belonged to Shawn Berry. He’d been riding around that Saturday night with two avowed white supremacists, John William “Bill” King and Lawrence Brewer. The case came together quickly. Byrd’s blood was found on the pants and shoes of all three. The men would give conflicting accounts over the years of what happened that night, each minimizing his role.
But forensic evidence established the basic narrative: They had kidnapped Byrd, driven him to a remote spot outside of town, savagely beaten him, chained him by the ankles to the pickup, and dragged him down three miles of dark, East Texas logging road. The autopsy showed Byrd was still alive while he was dragged. He’d tried to hold his head up. After a mile or so, Byrd hit a culvert, and was decapitated. The severity of the crime and overwhelming evidence led to swift convictions. King and Brewer were sentenced to death; Berry, the only one of the three who couldn’t be linked to white-supremacist groups, received life in prison.
Thirteen years later, it remains the most gruesome racist murder the United States has seen in decades. Byrd’s killing spurred passage of state and federal hate-crime laws.
The murder recently has garnered a fresh round of media coverage as Brewer’s execution date draws near. He’s scheduled to be executed on Wednesday (Sept. 21). A reprieve is unlikely. King—waiting on death row—likely will soon be dead too. But the prison-gang culture that helped turn these men into racist killers is still with us.
It would be easy to dismiss King, Brewer and Berry as racist sociopaths who committed an isolated act of racial violence. But the reality is more complex and, in some respects, more frightening. There is ample evidence that Brewer and King—the two apparent ringleaders—became violent white supremacists in prison.
Evidence at King’s 1999 trial described a “ghastly prison subculture,” according to U.S. News & World Report. By the end of the trial, the magazine wrote, that culture seemed “an unindicted co-conspirator.”
Before they became famous for Byrd’s shocking murder, Brewer and King were cellmates for two years at the Beto I Unit in East Texas. Brewer had been there a year when King arrived on July 20, 1995. They would leave very different men.
Friends and family described King as quiet and likable. Louis Berry, who knew King growing up in Jasper, told a reporter from People magazine in 1998 that King was an amiable guitar player. King was wayward, but not violent. After dropping out of Jasper High School, he was arrested in 1992 for breaking into a vending machine company. He spent a few months at a camp for juvenile offenders and was released. King eventually violated his parole and was sent to prison for the remainder of his 10-year sentence. He was just 20 years old when he entered Beto I.
Brewer grew up in the East Texas town of Sulphur Springs. Like King, he was a high school dropout. But he was eight years older than King and had a longer rap sheet. He was first imprisoned in the late 1980s for two counts of burglary and cocaine possession. He was released in 1991, but violated his parole three years later and ended up in Beto I. Though Brewer had a history of theft and drug use, he wasn’t violent. (Brewer granted one brief television interview in the weeks before his scheduled execution, but refused all other media requests, including two for this story. His family also has shunned reporters.)
Texas prisons can be violent. When Brewer and King entered Beto I in the mid-1990s, Texas prisons had seen a steep increase in gang membership. Until the early 1980s, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had maintained order in its prisons with the help of inmate-guards—prisoners designated to help keep other inmates in line. Many inmate-guards were Anglo and they often kept order through violence and discrimination. In 1980, District Judge William Wayne Justice ruled this system unconstitutional. But the elimination of the inmate-guard system had an unintended consequence: It created a power vacuum in many prisons—a void that empowered gangs. TDCJ now estimates that about 20 percent of its 158,000 inmates have joined prison gangs. Membership is often segregated by race. “Racial agitation, mindless aggression and confrontation are a way of life for prisoners,” wrote one Texas inmate in an anonymous 2001 essay in Playboy. “Race in Texas prisons is a fundamental fact of existence. There is no pride in one’s heritage or race in prison that is not stated in the most extreme terms.” White supremacist gangs have been especially effective at recruiting prisoners.
Brewer testified at his trial that he and King joined the Confederate Knights of America—a Ku Klux Klan-like group based in North Carolina—to protect themselves in prison. Neither man is physically imposing. Brewer is listed on TDCJ documents as 5-foot-6 inches tall. And the Beto I Unit has a reputation as a particularly violent prison. It was known at the time as a “gladiator unit” in which young inmates often dueled for supremacy.
Emil Garza, who oversees the prison system’s gang intelligence unit, says that prison gangs often have success recruiting new inmates. “If you’re brand-new and just coming into the system, I don’t care what any one of those guys says, they’re scared,” Garza said. “They’re scared of the unknown because they have no idea. … And of course they’re going to gravitate toward people they are most comfortable with. So if that includes your own race, which nine times out of ten it is.”
At trial, Brewer contended that he wasn’t racist, but had joined the Confederate Knights of America out of self-defense in a dangerous prison. His family tried to reinforce this view by telling reporters that Brewer hadn’t exhibited racist beliefs before he was incarcerated. He had been married to Sylvia Nunes, a Latina, for five years, according to a Houston Chronicle report at the time, and fathered a son with her. Nunes’ mother told The Dallas Morning News that Brewer was “racially tolerant.” Marshall Roberts, a black man who had been married to Brewer’s cousin for seven years, told reporters that he had never detected any prejudice from Brewer.
Still, as Garza points out, prison gangs, especially white supremacist gangs, often attract and recruit like minds. “They know the behaviors they’re looking for,” he said. “If we’re talking about it in Anglo terms, these white supremacist groups, they will watch a white offender and see what he does. In the recreation yard, is he congregating with other races, or is he going straight to the white race? Is he coming to us? These are tell-tale signs that are looked for on how you carry yourself. If you stay away from the other races and gravitate to your own race, well that’s what I’m looking for.”
We will never know what King and Brewer felt in their hearts when they entered prison. But there’s little doubt they were radicalized by the culture at Beto I. “Most prisoners eventually get out and rejoin the public. They take their hatred to the streets,” the anonymous Texas prisoner wrote in Playboy in 2001. The Anti-Defamation League noted, more soberly, in a 2002 report on prison gangs, that “Many members of racist prison gangs, particularly those who joined merely for protection or profit, end their association … when released. However, sometimes members become truly ideologically committed. Members of some white prison gangs, for instance, may become true white supremacists.” So it seemed with King and Brewer.
They were paroled within months of each other in 1997. Both returned home sporting new racist tattoos. King had adorned his body with a rendering of Woody Woodpecker in Ku Klux Klan garb and an image of a lynching. He was spewing violent racist rhetoric. “When he came back [from prison], he was a person I’d never seen,” Louis Berry told People magazine in 1998. Louis’ brother Shawn was sharing an apartment in Jasper with the newly freed King. Louis, according to several news accounts, got into a heated argument with King because Louis had a black drummer in his band, which King found offensive. According to trial testimony, King talked of starting a Confederate Knights of America chapter in Jasper, and said he needed an attention-grabbing event to spark interest in his new group and give it legitimacy in the white-supremacist community.
By June 1998, Brewer had come to visit Jasper and was staying with King and Berry. It’s not clear what, if any, role Brewer had in King’s planned white supremacist group. On Saturday night, June 6, the three men spent much of the evening drinking beer, according to news accounts, and planned to cruise the town in Berry’s truck looking for women. In the early morning hours, they happened across a drunken Byrd stumbling home from a party. Byrd knew Berry from around town. Berry offered him a ride. Byrd hopped into the bed of the truck, and they drove off into the night.