Final Execution Set in James Byrd Jr.'s 1998 Murder Case

On a spring night 21 years ago, James Byrd Jr. was looking for a ride back to his Jasper, Texas, home. The men who offered it to him viciously murdered Byrd in a crime that shocked the nation.

On a spring night 21 years ago, James Byrd Jr. was looking for a ride back to his Jasper, Texas, home. The men who offered it to him viciously murdered Byrd in a crime that shocked the nation.

Byrd's sister, Louvon Harris, says those 24 hours threw the family into a state of disbelief.

"That's a moment where you say to yourself, is this really happening? Because we just left him the day before at my niece's bridal shower. And as a family, we're a normal family. And the only problem he had that day was, 'Am I gonna be the only male at that bridal shower? And he laughed about it," Harris told

The next day, on June 7, 1998, three white supremacists severely beat Byrd — even defecated on him — before they chained his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for 3 miles.

A pathologist testified Byrd was alive for much of it. He died about halfway through, after being decapitated and having his right arm ripped off.

"You deal with pain, shock, and we were numb and we became very angry. Who gave them the right to say my brother's not worth living because he was born black? Something he had no control over? And they said you don't deserve to live because of that,” Harris said.

Billy Rowles was head of the Jasper County Sheriff's Office at the time and saw the horrific crime scene.

"It made me sick to my stomach. For what it's worth. It's the remains of a human being who had been dismembered. Very sickening,"  he told

Rowles said a witness told authorities he saw a dark colored pickup truck with loud mufflers barreling down the street. He said he spotted three white men inside and Byrd in the back.

"And when he got up on the porch, he heard a pickup truck with very loud mufflers coming toward his house. And he looked out there and when the truck went by in front of it."

They dumped Byrd’s body in front of an African-American cemetery.

Word got around town and Rowles said witnesses led them straight to Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John William King. They were all tried and convicted of Byrd's brutal murder.

Back then, Byrd's son, Ross, spoke up against the death penalty and expressed that the punishment for murder should not be more murder. Brewer was sentenced to the death penalty. 

Harris went to Brewer's execution in 2011 and said the man showed no remorse.

"I never been to an execution before, I never thought I'd be in this situation before. Of course I never thought I'd be a victim family of a hate crime either. It was pretty eerie because, to watch someone die. But it was also an eye opener to see how far hate will go. Will you take it to the grave?"

Berry received a life sentence. After numerous appeals, King was also sentenced to death by lethal injection. It is scheduled for April 24.

"I'm gonna be there. Yea. I'm not gonna watch it, I've seen too many people die in my life. But I am gonna be sitting outside on the grounds when it happens," said Rowles, now the Newton County sheriff.

Harris will be there too. "It won't bring James back, but justice was served. In history you find out very seldom two white men put to death for killing a black man. And so you have history there."

Byrd's family marked the 20th anniversary of his death last year.

Rowles said the loss, paired with Matthew Shepard’s grizzly murder in Wyoming four months later simply because he was gay, helped change the course of history.

"Everybody now knows what a hate crime is. Back then when this happened, it was a racially motivated murder. A civil rights violation.The man was murdered because of his race. The phrase, hate crime came out of this a few weeks after this, we had the Matthew Shepard case up in Laramie, Wyoming," Rowles said.

Rowles feels like the incident tarnished the image of the small Texas town — a wound still trying to heal.

Yet through pure heartache, Byrd's family found a ray of light: starting The Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing.

The foundation's goal is to encourage racial unity through education and reduce the number of racially motivated crimes. For the case that has haunted Rowles, the town and the nation for decades, closure can't come fast enough.

"I'll be glad when it's over. That would be the final act of this case. Would be when John William King is laid to rest, it's over," Rowles said.

James Byrd's memory and legacy continue to will live on.

"James was a fun loving person. He loved people. He loved music. He could pick up an instrument and just play it right there and not thinking about it. And he also teased the family, ‘I'ma put Jasper on the map, I'ma put Jasper on the map!’ And everything. And I keep hearing those words in my mind. We thought it would be through his music and through his playing. Never in my wildest dreams did we think it would be because of his death," Harris said.