Racist found guilty of brutal ritual murder in Jasper trial


It took a jury just two hours yesterday to convict 24 year-old John William King of a racially-motivated murder that stunned America and shocked a small town in Texas. It was a case as gruesome as any considered in living memory by an American jury. Last summer, a 49-year-old black man named James Byrd jnr got into a pick-up truck with three white men who offered him a ride. This week a nation listened as prosecutors described in horrifying detail how Mr Byrd was tied to the back of that truck with a 24-foot logging chain. He was dragged about three miles as the truck sped along Huff Creek Road in Jasper, Texas. Along the way, he struggled.

About two miles into the nightmare, Mr Byrd's body hit a concrete culvert and his head and right shoulder were ripped from his body. He was finally dumped at the gates of a black cemetery.

The man standing trial for the kidnapping and murder of Mr Byrd was a convicted burglar named John William King. He is the first of the three men to stand trial, with the others set for later this year. King is an ambitious man, a member of racist groups, and a man who was intent on becoming famous. In a letter sent to one of his co-defendants, King wrote, "We have made history and will die proudly remembered."

The letter was adorned with a Nazi salute and symbols of the Ku Klux Klan. King has applied his principles even to his own body; he is covered with tattoos and symbols of racial hatred . The tattoos include the image of a black man hanging from a tree, goat heads, a pentagram, Nazi SS lightning bolts, and a horned baby Jesus.

King sat in the courtroom and listened impassively as the prosecution presented 43 witnesses, including a pathologist who testified that Mr Byrd was alive and conscious and struggling as his body was torn to pieces along the gravelled road. The pathologists showed the jury 14 photographs of Mr Byrd's remains, and testified that Mr Byrd's ankles and buttocks and elbows were ground down to the bone. Mr Byrd's daughter, Ms Rene Mullins, wept and left the courtroom to vomit outside during the testimony.

Other prosecution witnesses included prison inmates who shared cells with King, and who testified that he had earlier talked of plans to kidnap and kill a black man as part of a blood initiation rite into a racist gang. Using King's prolific writings, prosecutors described him as a man who called himself captain of the Texas Rebel Soldiers Division, Confederate Knights of America, the warrior leader of a new Ku Klux Klan.

The defence presented just three witnesses and rested in little more than an hour. They presented friends of King's who offered testimony that he was not a violent person. They claimed that King got himself tattooed as defence against black prisoners when he was serving time for burglary.

The town of Jasper cringed under the international spotlight, as television satellite trucks and reporters swarmed around the quaint, 110-year-old yellow stucco building that serves as its courthouse. Residents say that Jasper is not racist, and the town's only Holocaust survivor, who owns a local restaurant, describes it as a nice place. Still, the town decided only last month to remove a fence that has long separated whites from blacks in the local cemetery.

As the verdict was read, members of Mr Byrd's family wiped tears from their eyes. His sister, Mary Verrette, said: "We win but we still lose because we don't have him with us.

Mr Byrd's daughter said the guilty verdict would "bring some kind of closure. I have been living this nightmare for eight months." The next phase of trial continues today and tomorrow as the jury must decide whether to sentence King to life imprisonment or death. The state of Texas executes more prisoners than any other state in the US.