The Byrd Family
In the aftermath of Mr. Byrd’s murder, the Byrd family found themselves thrust into the national spotlight. The Discovery Channel and the BBC aired a documentary on the murder and Los Angeles Laker Dennis Rodman gave $25,000 to the Byrd family to help pay for Byrd’s funeral and establish a family trust fund. The Byrd family went on to create the James Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing in 1998. They are working on several education and community engagement projects including a racial oral history project and a hate-crimes clearinghouse.
The family has continued to speak out against hate crimes and has supported efforts to strengthen hate crimes legislation. Byrd’s mother, Stella Byrd, his sisters Mylinda Byrd-Washington and Louvon Harris, and his daughter Renee Mullins were the most active in seeking support of a tougher bill in Texas in 1999. A House committee approved the James Byrd, Jr. Act in March of that year, but George W. Bush, who was governor of Texas at that time, refused to support the bill. The Byrd family also worked with Matthew Shepard’s family in demanding that the definition of hate crimes be broadened to include bias crimes against homosexuals.
Later that same year, legislators in Washington followed Bush’s lead and stalled a vote in the House of Representatives. In February of 2000, President Clinton sought to revive a vote on the Hate Crimes legislation. It passed the Senate, but died in the Republican-controlled House. A victory for hate crimes legislation was finally realized for the Byrd family in Texas when the James Byrd Hate Crimes Act was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry, on May 11, 2001.
Beginning earlier this year, after hearing that John King had exhausted his appeals, Byrd’s son Ross began speaking out against the death penalty. In July, he participated in a 24-hour prayer vigil and fast for mercy, along with social activist Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, at the Huntsville Prison Unit where King and Brewer are awaiting execution.
John William King, 28, was the first of the three murderers to be tried. While awaiting trial, he issued a couple of statements to the press, claiming his innocence and railing against the public and the media. After he refused to attend a pre-trial hearing, his defense counsel filed a motion asking to be withdrawn from the case. The judge denied the request.
King is the first white person condemned in Texas for killing a black person since capital punishment resumed in Texas in the mid-1970s. The only time a white person was executed for killing a black person in Texas was in 1854.
In 2001, the Associated Press reported that King remained unapologetic, firm in his racist beliefs and confident he’ll eventually be found innocent.
As of this year, King has exhausted nearly all of his appeals and remains on death row.
By the time Lawrence Russell Brewer, 35, was arrested for Byrd’s murder, at age 31, he had spent the last 11 years in and out of state prisons. While awaiting trial, Brewer reportedly boasted about the murder in a letter to a fellow inmate and then said that he would welcome execution in another letter to King. Earlier this year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld his conviction and death sentence.
Brewer remains on Texas’s death row.
Shawn Berry maintained throughout his trial that he was a bystander in the attack. Prior to the trial, he told his story to Dan Rather on 60 Minutes II. CBS was later subpoenaed for the interview tapes, sparking debate about reporter vs. attorney privilege; eventually CBS turned over the interview transcripts, after the producer was threatened with imprisonment. Unlike King and Brewer, Berry was given a life sentence.
In 2001 he filed an appeal, which was subsequently denied.
On January 20, 1999, at a special unity service, the wrought-iron fence that separated the black and white graves for more than 150 years was torn down. About 75 people — black and white — sang in celebration. The fence had been standing since the cemetery opened in 1836.
The KKK has visited Byrd’s grave several times and left stickers and other markers that they were there with the intention of angering the family and the Jasper community.
(Sources: AP Wire, Emerge, San Antonio Express-News)