Remember Byrd and forget King

John William King, an avowed white supremacist, was sentenced to death last week for the racial murder of James Byrd Jr.
King, 24, was one of three men charged in the killing of Byrd, a 49-year-old black man. It took the jury just over two hours to vote in favor of giving King the death penalty. The foreman of the jury, a prison guard who went to junior high school with King, passed the verdict sheet to Judge Joe Bob Golden.
“Mr. King,” the judge said, “I hereby sentence you to death by lethal injection.” Apparently King showed no remorse for his actions — even when the sentence was delivered. No trial dates have been set for King’s alleged accomplices, Shawn Allen Berry, 24, and Lawrence Russell Brewer, 31.
In a RealAudio recording, ABC news correspondent Steve Osunsami reported that the prosecution portrayed John William King as a white supremacist in their opening arguments. As King was escorted up the courthouse steps in his bulletproof vest, Osunsami remarked on how underneath the vest, King’s body was riddled with white supremacist tattoos. A woman who received love letters from King while he was in jail before the trial, told of how King said if a white woman has a black lover, they both should be hanged.
In this world, one must remember that every enemy has a friend. John William King is not a loner. Not only was he with two of his friends at the time of the killing, there are many more across this great land who think — but thankfully, don’t act — like King. The most bigoted comment I could imagine would be: “Why give King the death penalty for killing a nigger?” However, whites in Jasper and throughout the country are no doubt just as appalled by the killing as blacks.
This is a question of justice, and there are many versions. There’s vigilante justice, something not to far removed from what King did himself. There’s state justice: State sovereignty is the basis for a state choosing the death penalty or not. Issuing the death penalty is, by critical accounts, referred to as a state-sanctioned murder. Then there is personal justice, which is justice determined by those who are closest to the victim, in cases where the victim has been killed.
Let’s start with a victim that hasn’t been killed. Just ask yourself this question: If someone stole something from you, how would you handle it? Would an apology be sufficient? Would you ask for the stolen item to be returned, and that’s all the justice you need? You just tell the thief to leave, and to never come back? Or, do you do like they do in some foreign countries, and cut off the thief’s hand? Maybe you think that’s too harsh a punishment, but others don’t.
Let’s up the ante. Let’s say, instead of a thief, a guy rapes your girlfriend, mother or wife. What would you do? Now, this is decidedly a male perspective. To be honest, I haven’t the slightest idea how women feel; I can only surmise. But for equality sake, let’s say your boyfriend, dad or husband was beaten by a gang of thugs for no reason. What do you say? Stay out of the wrong neighborhood? Do you shake your finger in the air, thinking that God or the courts will somehow, someway punish the criminals?
Let’s up the ante again. This time, I’m going to get personal. If someone killed my girlfriend, mother or wife, I’d want to kill them, period. I don’t even have to think about it. I don’t care about justice. I don’t care about “other” issues, like poverty, crime statistics or the way society is. I don’t need to understand why the killer killed. I don’t care if it doesn’t bring my loved one back. I don’t care if violence begets violence. I know that at the moment the killer is about to kill, I would kill him to stop him from killing.
Byrd’s arm, head and torso were found scattered along a three-mile section of road near the town of Jasper, Texas, just west of the Louisiana border. Eight months later, it took a jury of 11 whites and one black just more than two hours to find white supremacist King guilty of one of the nation’s most grisly hate crimes.
At the time of King’s trial, he was portrayed by the media as belligerent, refusing to participate in programs, and one psychiatrist testified that he was capable of further acts of violence. Many people feared that if given a life sentence, King would find a way to kill again.
King has a family. It would be wrong of me to hold his family responsible — but I still do. I can’t help but wonder what in this guy’s upbringing led him to develop such hatred toward blacks. If social critics feel that “strong family values” is the solution to creating such monsters, the family must also be held accountable when such monsters rear their ugly heads.
While those sympathetic to King would like the enraged public to see that King has a family that loves him, I fear the public will forget about Byrd’s sister, Mary Verrett, Byrd’s daughter, Renee Mullins, and his son, Ross Byrd.
Some religious leaders will pray for mercy. Some white supremacists will hail him a hero. Some blacks will be more than glad to serve the lethal injection. Some people feel the death penalty is not a solution and King should get life in jail.
Not being at the trial and reviewing the facts myself, my opinion is an emotional reaction based on what I’ve read, heard and seen through media. I can only assume the depiction of Byrd’s murder to be a true one. If so — if King really dragged Byrd in excruciating pain behind a pickup truck until his body broke into pieces, and then dropped Byrd’s remains on the steps of a church — if this is true, then King should die.
At the time of Byrd’s death, more than 500 residents, including civil rights leaders and politicians, gathered to mourn the terrible loss of James Byrd Jr. After his funeral, approximately 15 gun-toting black men marched through the streets denouncing his murder. The Rev. Jesse Jackson wisely requests the citizens of Jasper and the United States to choose redemption over retaliation. On the surface, it appears that most blacks and whites in Jasper get along fairly well. But some people are suspicious of an insidious undercurrent, the very one that has divided this country racially for decades.
Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and dozens of other organizations call on the nation for a moratorium on the death penalty. Texas is notorious for racial violence and the death penalty, and of the 74 executions in 1997, 37 took place in Texas alone. After the Furman vs. United States case ended the death penalty in 1972, only four years later was the death penalty reinstated.
Since then, the United States has executed more than 400 prisoners, with Texas accounting for one-third of the total. Out of the 144 prisoners executed in Texas from 1977 to 1997, 88 percent were executed for the killing of a white victim. Jasper lies in a region with a history of black lynchings, with arson a regular occurrence today throughout the south.
America has made great efforts toward ending racism, but clearly the war is not over. And it will certainly not end by state-sanctioned murder in the form of revenge. If it is emotion that drives the state toward the death penalty, this will be no different than the emotion that drives the Ku Klux Klan, or any other hate group toward acts of violence.
But my feelings outweigh my logic. It does me no good to imagine that, even with solitary confinement without any privileges whatsoever, this would be punishment enough. The criminal can still breathe. He can still think. He can still imagine. He can sing. He can dance, even if it’s by himself. These are the things King took away from Byrd. I do not see the justice in allowing King to have what he took away from an innocent man. What John William King took is the greatest thievery of all: He took life. Giving him life is giving him more than what he deserves.

Jerry Flattum’s column appears every Monday.