After some some three hours of deliberations on Thursday, the 11 white jurors and their elected black foreman rendered their decision to Judge Joe Bob Golden, reports CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason.
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As King was led from the courthouse, the spectators outside taunted him, yelling, "Bye!" When asked if he had anything to say, King responded with an obscenity.
Renee Mullins, Byrd's daughter, said after the sentencing that she was "very satisfied" with the decision. Nephew Darrell Verrett held up his fingers in the peace sign and said, "Everything's OK."
King will be the first white man on Texas' death row for killing a black person since capital punishment resumed in the state in the mid-70s.
Earlier Thursday, both the prosecution and the defense presented their closing arguments before the court.
"By giving Mr. King a life sentence, you're giving him at least 40 years to catch a black guard, a black nurse, a black doctor, a Jewish guard, a Jewish nurse, a Jewish doctor, or anybody else," said prosecutor Pat Hardy. "You're giving him a chance to catch anybody ... who doesn't believe in his satanic racist views, you're giving him that long to take another life."
The same jurors who convicted the 24-year-old King of capital murder on Tuesday had to decide whether he was a continuing threat to society, whether the murder of James Byrd Jr. was intentional, and if any mitigating factor in King's background merited the lesser punishment. They answered yes to the first two questions; no to the third.
King would have been eligible for parole in 40 years if jurors chose a life sentence.
After about 35 minutes of closing arguments, the jury began its deliberations.
About an hour later, jurors sent out a note asking to see the homemade knife found in King's cell in January. The shank was eight inches long and made from a radio antenna and used a broken piece of plastic as the handle, which then was taped.
Hardy referred to it in his argument Thursday.
"The defense tried to make you believe this shank was made to hurt Mr. King," he said. "That evidence shows, the shank shows . . . the handle was taped. The reason the handle is taped is to keep the defendant from hurting himself when he digs somebody else with it."
The jury later asked to see letters with acist writings King sent to a girlfriend while he was imprisoned on a burglary charge. They also requested another note written to co-defendant Lawrence Brewer and intercepted by deputies. Brewer, 31, and Shawn Berry, 24, are awaiting trial on the same charge.
"Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history and shall die proudly remembered, if need be," King wrote in the note introduced into evidence Monday.
Byrd, 49, died June 7 after he was picked up while walking home from a party. After a scuffle, he was pulled nearly three miles behind a pickup truck, chained by his ankles. A pathologist testified Byrd was alive until his head and right arm were severed from his torso, which was dumped across from a black cemetery northeast of Jasper.