Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, was executed by lethal injection on 21 September 2011 in Huntsville, Texas for the abduction and murder of a 49-year-old man.
In the early morning of 7 June 1998, James Byrd Jr., 49, was at a party in Jasper, in east Texas. Wanting to leave and unable to find a ride, he began walking down the road towards home, which was about a mile from the party. At the same time, Brewer, then 31, and John King, 23, were riding in a truck driven by Shawn Berry, 23. The men spotted Byrd and offered him a ride, which he accepted. Witnesses later testified seeing Byrd, who was black, riding in the bed of an old-model, step-side, primer-gray pickup truck with three white people in the cab.
The men drove to an isolated logging road, stopped the vehicle, and got out. They then attacked Byrd, tied his feet with a logging chain, and attached the chain to the back of the truck. They then drove along Huff Creek Road, dragging Byrd behind the truck until he was dead. They left Byrd's body on the road in front of a church attended by black residents. The body was found by townsfolk later that morning. It was missing the head, neck, and right arm.
Police followed a trail of blood, drag marks, and body parts for about a mile and a half, culminating in an area of matted-down grass that appeared to have been the scene of a struggle. At this site and all along the asphalt road ending in front of the church, police discovered clothing and personal items belonging to Byrd, including his wallet, keys, and dentures. They also found items apparently belonging to others, including a cigarette lighter engraved with the words "Possum" and "KKK", a nut driver inscribed with the name "Berry", three cigarette butts, a pack of cigarettes, and beer bottles.
The next evening, police stopped Berry for a traffic violation in his primer-gray 1982 Ford pickup. Behind the front seat, police discovered a set of tools matching the wrench found at the fight scene. Berry was arrested. Byrd's blood was found underneath the truck and on the tires. Police also noticed a rust stain in the bed of the pickup that was in the pattern and outline of a large chain.
At Berry's apartment, which he shared with Brewer and King, police and FBI agents found items of clothing stained with Byrd's blood belonging to all three men. They also found a large amount of racial pamphlets and paraphernalia. DNA tests on the three cigarette butts found at the crime scene established Berry, Brewer, and King as the major DNA contributors. In the woods where the three suspects were known to play paintball, police found a covered hole containing a 24-foot logging chain that matched the rust pattern in the bed of Berry's pickup.
Byrd's murder stunned the nation and made the name Jasper synonymous with racist hate. Various state and federal "hate crime" laws were enacted around the country soon afterward. These laws typically call for harsher punishments for crimes motivated from racial hatred or certain other kinds of hatred.
At Brewer's trial, which was held six counties away, in Brazos County, a pathologist testified that Byrd was still alive until he was dragged across a culvert, and this is what severed his head and arm from the rest of his body.
Brewer and King had met in prison, where they were both members of the Confederate Knights of America, a white supremacist prison gang affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. Prosecutors presented evidence that Brewer was a leader in the gang, bearing the title of Exalted Cyclops. At King's trial, prosecutors asserted that King, whose prison name was "Possum", planned to start a white supremacist group in Jasper. Byrd's killing, followed by the public display of his body, were intended as a signal to the community that the group was up and running.
Brewer admitted to participating in the attack on Byrd, but testified that he did not join in the dragging and instead tried to stop it. He also testified that Berry had cut Byrd's throat before the dragging began.
Under Texas law, a defendant can be found guilty as a party to capital murder, regardless of whether he or she personally inflicts the fatal injury.
Brewer had been in and out of prison three times for previous felonies. In October 1986, he was sentenced to 7 years for burglary of a habitation. He was paroled in February 1988. A year later, he was sentenced to 15 years for cocaine possession. He was released in May 1991 after serving 2 years of that sentence. (In the late 1980's and early 1990's, early release was common in Texas due to strict prison population caps imposed by U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice.) Brewer was returned to prison in 1994 for failing to report to his parole officer. He was released again in May 1997.
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