Jasper Hate Crime Trial To Open

Attorneys are expected to make their opening statements Tuesday in the trial of John William King, one of three white men accused of the brutal, racially charged murder of 49 year-old James Byrd Jr.

Byrd, a black man, was chained to a pickup truck June 7, 1998, and dragged along a winding rural road till he died. His body was ripped to pieces over the 2 and 1/2 mile route. King, Shawn Berry, and Lawrence Russell Brewer were charged with the slaying.

Brewer, 31, and Berry, 23, will be tried at a later date. Like King, they are charged with capital murder, meaning they face life in prison or execution by lethal injection if convicted.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that King, a 24-year-old ex-convict, was the ringleader of the attack.

The District Attorney's office says the men picked up Byrd as he walked home from a party and killed him simply because they hated blacks. Prosecutors have speculated that King, who was in prison with Brewer and also high school classmate of Berry's, may have been trying to start a racist group.

King joined a white supremacist gang while serving time on burglary charges and had his body adorned with racist tattoos. He has denied involvement in the crime and said he is not a racist, but wrote in a letter to a newspaper that he was "white and proud."

Prosecutors have subpoenaed 69 people to testify in the case, including several inmates who were behind bars with King.

The apparent hate crime outraged Americans, and made the small town of Jasper, Tex., the center of a nationwide debate over race relations.

Ku Klux Klan members and black militants converged on the east Texas town of 8,000 after Byrd's death to take part in a rally held on June 27. The KKK came to deny involvement in the murder, while militants pointed fingers at what they called a racially motivated slaying.

Klan leader Michael Lowe of Waco said then that the rally was a chance to disavow the crime.

"We're here to condemn the murder of Mr. Byrd and to say we had nothing to do with it," said Lowe. "It's a tragedy."

Relatives of the murder victim addressed the tense situation in a statement: "Let this horrendous violation of the sanctity of life not be a spark that ignites more hatred and retribution. Rather, let this be a wake-up call for America and for all Americans. May it spark a new cleansing fire of self-examination and reflection."

The outpouring of support for Byrd's family continued through his funeral, which was attended by several distinguished black leaders.

"This is a unique situation and one we hope is not repeated. but one. . .quite frankly we fear might be," said Kweisi Mfume, the president of the NAACP. Kweisi called on Americans of all races to join for a national day of mourning in memory of Byrd.

The New Black Panther Party has sought permission to demonstrate outside the Jasper County Courthouse on Tuesday, where King's trial is set to begin. State Disrict Judge Joe Bob Golden has banned all such public displays within a two-block radius of the courthouse to minimize outside influences on the jury.

A dozen surveillance cameras, loaned to Jasper County by the FBI, have been mounted around the courthouse so that police can monitor the area. Floodlights have also been installed and metal detectors and armed guards will be at each courthouse entrance.

Golden will not sequester the jury, which is thought to include at least one African American, but will bus them to the courthouse each day from a remote location.