Reno offers to aid prosecutors in Texas dragging killing Town lacks resources to handle murder cases

June 19, 1998|By HEARST NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Janet Reno offered yesterday to help the small town of Jasper, Texas, with its prosecution of three white men in the hate-crime killing of a disabled black man in order to avoid letting "dollars become part of the equation of justice."

Prosecutors in the rural logging town of about 8,000 people are struggling with the costs of trying not only that case but an earlier murder case as well.

The community must find the resources for prosecutions that could seek the death penalty in the highly publicized slaying of James Byrd Jr., who was chained and dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in the early hours of June 7, and in the bludgeoning death of a local builder May 31.

Jasper District Attorney James Gray is awaiting final results of laboratory tests before deciding whether to seek the death penalty in the Byrd case. With an annual budget of less than $250,000, Gray expects the two cases to cost many times that amount to prosecute. He will present evidence in both cases to a grand jury, which will convene July 6.

Reno said at her weekly news conference in Washington that she had spoken with Gray about how the Byrd case should be pursued to ensure that justice is served. Although no decision has been made on whether the federal government will pursue charges of civil rights violations against any of the suspects in the Byrd case, Reno said she offered to give the prosecutors as much help as she can.

"Funding should not be an issue with respect to justice," she said. "I hate to see dollars become part of the equation of justice."

Reno said the federal government could aid the local authorities by providing investigative assistance and help with forensic evidence.

In the case of Byrd, his headless torso was left in front of a black cemetery June 7. A state pathologist said this week that the 49-year-old man was alive when he was chained to the truck.

According to Sheriff Billy Rowles, that suggests that a kidnapping occurred and means that the suspects could be charged with capital murder -- homicide committed in conjunction with another crime -- which would allow the prosecutor to seek the death penalty.

Charged with murder in the case are Lawrence R. Brewer, 31, of Sulfur Springs, Texas, and Shawn A. Berry and John W. King, both 23, of Jasper.

Pub Date: 6/19/98

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