Reflections on Jasper

Article excerpt

Resisting History

In the early morning hours of June 7, 1998, in Jasper, Texas, James Byrd Jr. was abducted by three white supremacists who beat him, chained him to the back of their truck, then dragged him three miles, and finally deposited what had not disintegrated--Byrd's decapitated torso--in front of a black cemetery. Seventeen months later John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and Shawn Allen Berry had been tried and found guilty of this horrendous crime. King and Brewer were sentenced to death; Berry was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Many hailed this carriage of justice as a remarkable achievement--and in some ways it was. U.S. history is filled with stories of all-white juries failing to return convictions against lynchers. The three Byrd juries--two all-white, one with eleven white members--resisted the historical pattern.

The trials also set another historical precedent: King and Brewer are now the only two white men on Texas' death row convicted of killing a black American. In fact, they are only the second and third white men in Texas to be sentenced to death for the murder of a black person since the death penalty was reinstated in the mid-1970s. The first, Donald Vigneault, was sentenced to death in 1978 in Matagorda County for murdering Loretta Jones. But after years on death row, Vigneault ultimately died of natural causes in 1997. One has to go back to 1854 to find the only white person executed in Texas for the murder of a black person: James "Rhode" Wilson was put to death for killing the favorite slave of a powerful plantation owner.

Yet, despite the historical importance of the Byrd trials, it would be hasty to conclude that all is well with the Texas judicial system. King and Brewer join fifty-nine blacks on the state's death row for killing white people, and the very existence of all-white juries in this day and age should be cause for concern rather than celebration.

Most disappointing and rather mendacious is the fact that politicians and commentators have used the trials' outcomes to argue against hate crimes legislation--even though the three defendants were not charged with a hate crime. For example, Republican Senator Drew Nixon of Texas, whose district includes Jasper, explained that he did not support the hate crimes bill then under consideration by the Texas senate because of the sentence received by King. "This guy got the death penalty," Nixon said. "How do you enhance the death penalty?"

Byrd's death was tried in the courts as a murder and kidnapping--a capital offense in Texas--yet prompted Democratic Representative Senfronia Thompson and Democratic Senator Rodney Ellis to introduce a bill informally named the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. It would have expanded the categories covered under Texas' definition of hate crimes, provided specialized training for police officers, allowed victims greater civil remedies, and increased the criminal penalties in hate crimes cases.

The Byrd family strongly endorsed the bill, appeared at several rallies and conferences on its behalf, and urged Texas Governor George W. Bush to support it. Bush, instead, was positioning himself to appeal to the conservative constituency he needed for his presidential bid. Since the Texas bill also would have protected gays from homophobic attacks, he allowed it to languish until it finally died of senate inaction in May 1999.

Ten days after Byrd's slaying, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Democratic Representative Charles Schumer of New York reintroduced in Congress the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill broadened the definition of hate crimes and made it easier for federal authorities to prosecute such crimes. Introducing the bill, Schumer fervently advised that "the brutal torture and murder of this innocent man [Byrd] be a wake-up call," especially to "those in Congress who believe that hate crimes are overblown or that the Hate Crimes Act is unnecessary. …