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'One down and two to go': Texas man guilty in dragging death

District Judge Joe Bob Golden

CNN's Susan Candiotti recaps the trial
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CNN's Charles Zewe has reaction from family and King's attorneys
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Get details on the case

Family reacts to first trial's verdict

In this story:

Penalty phase begins

Trial evidence and arguments

Statement from convicted killer's father


February 23, 1999
Web posted at: 6:52 p.m. EST (2352 GMT)

JASPER, Texas (CNN) -- A jury found white supremacist John William King guilty Tuesday of capital murder in the brutal killing of a black man dragged to death behind a pickup truck.

"It's one down and two to go," said Ross Byrd, the victim's son, referring to the upcoming trials of two other men also accused of chaining James Byrd Jr. to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him until he was dismembered.

Courtroom spectators applauded the verdict until state District Judge Joe Bob Golden admonished them.

King, a 24-year-old laborer, appeared to have no reaction when the verdict was read. He leaned forward, trying to shield himself from cameras by leaning close to his lawyers. After the verdict was announced, he leaned back in his chair and sat with his fingers on his chin.

James Byrd Jr.'s sister Mary Verrette: "We win...yet we lose, because we don't have him back"  

King's father, , broke into tears, as did several members of Byrd's family. The victim's sister called the guilty verdict the only fair choice for the jury.

"There was evidence, a preponderance of evidence. It was there, the facts were there. It was not decided on emotions, but on facts," said Mary Verrette.

"We win, but yet we still lose, because we don't have him back," Verrette added.

Penalty phase begins

A jury of 11 whites and one black deliberated about 2 1/2 hours before reaching its unanimous verdict. Those same jurors will decide whether King goes to prison for life or dies by lethal injection.

The panel chose the only black member to serve as the jury foreman. He is a prison guard who attended middle school with the defendant.

John William King appeared emotionless after the guilty verdict was announced  

Prosecutor Guy James Gray said he expected the panel to begin their deliberations on King's punishment by Thursday. The first witnesses in the penalty phase, which began Tuesday after the verdict was reached, were King's parole officers. They testified about his negative attitude and his refusal to abide by the rules after his release from prison, where he served a sentence for burglary.

Trial evidence and arguments

The prosecutor said the verdict resulted from eight months of hard work.

"This is a tough business -- hell of a way to make a living," Gray said. "Lot of drama. Lot of excitement. We're relieved to get this far."

King was the first of three white men to be tried for capital murder in the June 7 slaying of 49-year-old Byrd. King's roommates Shawn Berry, 24, and Russell Brewer, 31, are in jail awaiting trial for the killing.

Byrd's tortured body was torn in two -- the head and right arm severed from the torso -- after he was pulled nearly three miles while tied by his ankles with a 24 1/2-foot logging chain.

In closing arguments Tuesday, Jasper County prosecutor Pat Hardy outlined the evidence against King and called him a demon.

Byrd Mullins
Ross Byrd, left, and Renee Mullins, the victim's son and daughter  

"Three robed riders coming straight out of hell -- that's exactly what there was that night," said Hardy, an assistant district attorney. "After they dragged that poor man and tore his body to pieces, they dropped it right in front of a church and a cemetery, to show their defiance to God, to show their defiance of Christianity and everything most people in this county stand for."

To make King eligible for the death penalty, prosecutors had to show Byrd's murder happened in conjunction with another crime, and they argued the abduction of Byrd amounted to kidnapping.

Physical evidence included a lighter engraved with a Ku Klux Klan symbol and King's prison name, "Possum," along with cigarette butts found at the crime scene; clothes stained with Byrd's blood found at King's apartment; the defendant's letters, in which he wrote about launching a racist gang; and tattoos on King's body that prosecutors said showed he hated blacks.

The defense attorneys appeared to have conceded the conviction and seemed to be focusing on trying to save King's life in the punishment phase. In their closing arguments, King's attorneys insisted that evidence of racist tattoos and writings did not prove that Byrd was kidnapped.

Prosecutor Guy James Gray: "We're relieved to get this far"  

"I don't deny he made some racial slurs," attorney Haden "Sonny" Cribbs said. "Not that I agree with that. But that is his right."

The murder thrust Jasper into a national spotlight as members of the Ku Klux Klan and New Black Panthers descended on the timber town of 8,000 people about 100 miles (161 kilometers) northeast of Houston.

Gray said the crime had been a "bombshell in our community."

"I don't think anybody realized until last Tuesday that this was a Klan-type outfit, a white supremacist-type outfit," Gray said. "Most people thought it was just a bunch of guys getting drunk on Saturday night or a drug deal that went bad."

Statement from convicted killer's father

Ronald King later issued a statement saying he was deeply saddened by the verdict in his son's trial, just as he was saddened for the Byrd family and their loss.

The statement also noted that King loved his son and that he prayed that no family would ever experience prejudice of any kind.

King's statement ended with a plea to the Jasper community "to continue to show the world by its example, that during these difficult times, good will overcome all evil, with our trust in and with the help of God."

Correspondent Susan Candiotti and Reuters contributed to this report.

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July 6, 1998

The Dallas Morning News: The Jasper Trial
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