'Avowed racist' offers no last words before execution for dragging death of black man in Texas

A white supremacist who orchestrated one of the most notorious hate crimes in American history offered no last words and kept his eyes closed the entire time before his execution in Texas Wednesday.

John William King, 44, was put to death by lethal injection for his role in the murder of 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., who was chained to the back of a truck and dragged to death along a secluded road outside Jasper, approximately 130 miles northeast of Houston, early on the morning of June 7, 1998. Investigators said Byrd was alive for at least two miles before his body was ripped to pieces.

The crime put a national spotlight on Jasper, which was hit with a racist stigma it has tried to shake off and that local officials said was undeserved. The case also became an issue in the 2000 presidential election, with groups including the NAACP criticizing then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush over his opposition to hate-crime legislation.

John William King was executed in Texas for his role in a brutal hate-crime murder.

John William King was executed in Texas for his role in a brutal hate-crime murder. (Texas Department of Criminal Justice via AP, File)

King was the fourth inmate executed this year in the U.S. and the third in Texas.

He was the second man executed for Byrd's killing. Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed in 2011. The third participant, Shawn Allen Berry, was sentenced to life in prison.

Prosecutors said Byrd was targeted because he was black. King was openly racist and had offensive tattoos on his body, including one of a black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree, according to investigators.

James Byrd Jr. was murdered in Texas in 1998.

James Byrd Jr. was murdered in Texas in 1998. (File)

King's appellate lawyers had tried to stop his execution, arguing King's constitutional rights were violated because his trial attorneys didn't present his claims of innocence and conceded his guilt.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected King's last-minute appeal.

"From the time of indictment through his trial, Mr. King maintained his absolute innocence, claiming that he had left his co-defendants and Mr. Byrd sometime prior to his death and was not present at the scene of his murder. Mr. King repeatedly expressed to defense counsel that he wanted to present his innocence claim at trial," A. Richard Ellis, one of King's attorneys, wrote in his petition to the Supreme Court.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also turned down King's request for either a commutation of his sentence or a 120-day reprieve.

Over the years, King, who grew up in Jasper and was known as "Bill," had suggested the brutal slaying was not a hate crime, but a drug deal gone bad involving his co-defendants.

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In a 2001 interview with The Associated Press, King said he was an "avowed racist" but wasn't "a hate-monger murderer."

Louvon Byrd Harris, one of Byrd's sisters, said King's execution sent a "message to the world that when you do something horrible like that, that you have to pay the high penalty."

Lawrence Russell Brewer, pictured in 1999, was executed in 2011 for his role in Byrd's killing.

Lawrence Russell Brewer, pictured in 1999, was executed in 2011 for his role in Byrd's killing. (AP, File)

Compared to "all the suffering" her brother suffered before his death, Harris said King and Brewer got "an easy way out."

Billy Rowles, who led the investigation into Byrd's death when he was sheriff in Jasper County, said after King was taken to death row in 1999, he offered to detail the crime as soon as his co-defendants were convicted. When Rowles returned, all King would say was, "I wasn't there."

"He played us like a fiddle, getting us to go over there and thinking we're going to get the rest of the story," said Rowles, now the sheriff of Newton County.

A week before Brewer was executed in 2011, Rowles said he visited Brewer, who confirmed, "the whole thing was Bill King's idea."

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Mylinda Byrd Washington, another of Byrd's sisters, said she and her family will work through the Byrd Foundation for Racial Healing to combat hate everywhere.

"I hope people remember him not as a hate crime statistic. This was a real person. A family man, a father, a brother and a son," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.