Dragging of black was designed to get attention, prosecutor says

Suspect in Texas slaying allegedly wanted to form white supremacist group

February 17, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JASPER, Texas -- John William King had dreamed of forming his own chapter of a white supremacist group but felt he needed some dramatic event to catapult him into the limelight and attract members.

That, prosecutors said yesterday for the first time, is why King and two other young white men chained a 49-year-old black man to the back of their pickup in June and dragged him three miles down a country road until his battered body was torn apart.

The case against King, 24, the first of the three suspects to come to trial in the death of James Byrd Jr., opened yesterday before a jury of seven men and five women -- all white except for one black man.

"Bill King needed to do something dramatic that would get media attention, which would attract, in their warped world, new members," said the Jasper County prosecutor, Guy James Gray, in his 10-minute opening statement.

In a search of the apartment that King had been sharing with his fellow defendants -- Shawn Berry, 23, and Lawrence Brewer, 31 -- police found racist books and an article from the December 1996 issue of Esquire magazine about the killing of Emmett Till in Mississippi, a notorious racial slaying of the 1950s, pointing out how the accused killers had gone free when an all-white jury acquitted them.

Police found some of King's racist writings, including a constitution he had written for a group he hoped to create called the Texas Rebel Soldiers Division of the Confederate Knights of America. Also found were a code of ethics for the group, a list of bylaws, applications for membership and a letter to be sent to new members.

The organization was to begin operating last July 4, Gray said. Prosecutors hope to prove that the timing of Byrd's death, less than a month earlier, was intended to help in that beginning.

King became a member of the Confederate Knights of America, a prison-based white supremacy group, while serving time in the mid-1990s. It was then that he met Brewer, also a member of the group. Berry and King had been friends since high school.

Prosecutors also introduced letters yesterday that King wrote to a 15-year-old girl who had been his pen pal while he was in prison. Those letters included profanities and racist statements, particu- larly about sexual relations between white women and black men.

Haden Cribbs, the chief defense lawyer, made no opening statement yesterday but reserved the right to make one later.

He paused during a break in the trial to remark on the evidence that prosecutors had unveiled in the trial's opening day. "The evidence does appear overwhelming," Cribbs said, but he warned against concluding that King is guilty of the charges.

In letters to newspapers, King has admitted being in the pickup, but said he had left before the killing, which he blamed on a soured drug deal between Berry and Byrd. King's lawyers have not revealed their trial strategy.

Lawyers said they expected testimony to last until the end of this week or early next week. "If things keep going the way they are, I expect it to be to the jury by Monday," Gray said.

In a methodical manner, Gray spelled out the evidence he intended to present against King.

Witnesses will testify, he said, that the accused left their apartment at 1: 30 a.m. June 7 in Berry's pickup and that an hour later a pickup truck of the same type and color was seen with three men inside and another man, Byrd, riding in the back.

Traces of Byrd's blood were found on Berry's truck and on a tire, Gray said, and the victim's blood was found on shoes owned by each of the accused.

King's motive, the prosecutor said, was hatred of blacks, mixed with a desire to do something to bring alive his dream of heading a racist gang in Jasper County.

"This young man is full of hate, and he has tattoos all over his body that reflect that hatred," Gray said.

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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