HUNTSVILLE, Texas (NBC) — A man who orchestrated one of the most gruesome hate crimes in U.S. history was set to be executed Wednesday for the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. nearly 21 years ago.
John William King, who is white and an avowed racist, was put on death row for chaining Byrd to the back of a truck and dragging his body for nearly 3 miles along a secluded road in the piney woods outside Jasper, Texas. The 49-year-old Byrd, who was black, was alive for at least 2 miles before his body was ripped to pieces in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998.
Prosecutors said he was targeted because he was black.
Authorities say the 44-year-old King is openly racist and has offensive tattoos on his body, including one of a black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree.
If executed, King would be the fourth inmate put to death this year in the U.S. and the third in Texas, the nation’s busiest capital punishment state.
The hate crime put a national spotlight on Jasper, a town of about 7,600 residents near the Texas-Louisiana border that was branded with a racist stigma it has tried to shake off ever since. Local officials say the reputation is undeserved.
King’s attorneys have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt his execution, arguing that King’s trial lawyers violated his constitutional rights by not presenting his claims of innocence and conceding his guilt. His lawyers cited a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in a Louisiana case in which the justices said that a lawyer for a criminal defendant cannot override his client’s wish to maintain his innocence at trial.
“From the time of indictment through his trial, Mr. King maintained his absolute innocence, claiming that he had left his co-defendants and Mr. Byrd sometime prior to his death and was not present at the scene of his murder. Mr. King repeatedly expressed to defense counsel that he wanted to present his innocence claim at trial,” A. Richard Ellis, one of King’s appellate attorneys, wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday rejected a similar request to stop the execution.
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday turned down King’s request for either a commutation of his sentence or a 120-day reprieve.
Over the years, King has also suggested the brutal slaying was not a hate crime, but a drug deal gone bad involving his co-defendants.
King, who grew up in Jasper and was known as “Bill,” will be the second man executed in the case. Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed in 2011. The third participant, Shawn Allen Berry, was sentenced to life in prison.