Byrd, a black man, was beaten, chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death on a dark country road. Only one person who was there that night has ever spoken publicly about the crime. His name is Shawn Berry, and he told CBS News his story in September 1999.
Just a few weeks ago, Berry met with the son of his victim. And for the first time, he gave Byrd's family a firsthand account of their father's horrible death.
Dan Rather talks with Renee and Ross Byrd about their meeting with the man who helped kill their father, and the terrifying story of the night James Byrd Jr. died.
The road is quiet now. But five years ago, one horrible summer night, a strip of pavement along a country road became a symbol of fear, hate and pain.
"What happened out there is the worse thing I ever heard of. And there was nothing to prepare anybody for it, anybody," says Berry. "But I've never been so scared. I couldn't move. I've never seen anybody get stomped on, beat up. And they looked like they were just having a happy time while they were doing it."
Berry says it all began innocently. When he and his two companions picked up Byrd, a 49-year-old father of three.
"I asked him if he wanted to go home, and he said he'd just ride around with us for a little while," remembers Berry. "Mr. Byrd asked me where we were going, and I said, 'We're just riding. We're going to ride down this road, turn around and come back out.'"
Byrd did not make it out alive.
Berry says he was killed by the other two men in the truck - Bill King and Russell Brewer.
"They ran around the side and they opened up Mr. Byrd's door and tried to pull him out. Well, he was hanging on the door with both hands to keep from, trying to keep himself inside the truck," says Berry.
"I'm going to tell you what was said. I don't feel comfortable talking about, saying it, but I'm going to tell you what was said. Mr. Byrd was fighting, trying to keep himself in the truck, and Bill said, '[censored] it, let's kill this nigger.'"
Why should anyone believe his version of the story?
"The only thing I can do is tell you what happened," says Berry.
The jury that heard Berry's case believed at least part of his story. Bill King and Russell Brewer received the death penalty. Shawn Berry was given his life, but little else. He won't eligible for parole until the year 2039.
If he could talk to the Byrd family, what would he say to them now? What could he say?
"Most important, I mean, I'm sorry. I'm sorry it happened, and I wish I'd have just jumped right in the middle and tried to do more to help him," says Berry. "The only thing a guy could say to them is, 'I'm sorry I couldn't help him more. I'm sorry I didn't.'"
Berry was behind bars for almost five years before he was able to talk with the family of the man he helped murder. Recently, outside the prison where Berry has been held since his trial, Byrd's children Ross and Renee met with Berry's brother, Lewis.
"He's waited a long time for this meeting, and I think it's something that he's been counting the days for," says Berry's brother, Lewis. "He wants to tell them what he saw and what happened and what went on. And answer questions they might have. "
For Byrd's children, Ross and Renee, the meeting triggered painful memories of the moment they learned about their father's death.
"I was baffled. I couldn't understand it," says Byrd's daughter, Renee. "I didn't want to believe it. I thought it was a mistaken identity or something. I was in denial."
"I kind of had an out-of-body experience. Because being an oldest child, you want to protect your parents, under any circumstances. I felt that I betrayed my dad because I couldn't help him when he was scared and isolated and I just felt bad that I wasn't there and I couldn't protect him. He had been ripped from my life."
Ross was stationed in the Army in Fort Benning, Ga., when he heard about his father's murder.
"I thought he'd been shot," remembers Ross, who at first didn't know how his father was killed.
"That reaction is a reaction I don't want nobody to ever endure. You know, because in my shoes, I'm fighting for my country and the country is out here killing my father. You know, that took a toll on me for a while because I didn't really speak on it at all. I kept a bunch of stuff bottled up. I couldn't attend the trial or anything and I just really had to find myself."
Ross says talking with Berry helped him find himself, and find some peace.
"I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to hear it come out of his mouth. You know, of what happened that night and that's basically it," says Ross. "I wanted to know what happened. It was something in me that wanted to know."
Inside the prison, Ross heard the same story from Berry that we did in September 1999. Berry says he was horrified and helpless as he watched King and Brewer pull Byrd from the truck.
"I got in between Bill and him, and I told Bill, 'Stop.' And he said this, you know, 'Back off, the same thing can happen to a nigger lover,'" remembers Berry. "And it scared me. I mean, that's the only feeling I had. I mean, it scared me. I didn't know what was, I didn't know what was going on. I never saw anything like that, so I backed away."
"They grabbed him and took him to the back of the truck, and Byrd was pretty drunk. He was very drunk. It wasn't, you know, there wasn't no problem for them to get him to the ground. I don't know if they pushed him or what, but he wound up on the ground, and Bill was stomping him with the bottom of his foot," says Berry.
"He was wearing sandals. He was stomping him with the bottom of his foot, and Russell was kicking, like straight outward, like you'd kick a football or something. And they were laughing and joking and acting like they were having a good time."
"He was down, but he was on all fours. They started kicking on him, and Russell got a can of spray paint out of the back, and he sprayed him in the face. Mr. Byrd didn't say anything. He was still on all fours, and Russell kicked him hard in the head somewhere. And that was the last time I saw him move."
Berry says he heard the chain being dragged out of the back of his truck.
"I was petrified. I couldn't move. I mean, I've never saw anything like that happen before," says Berry. "When Russell kicked him and he didn't move anymore, I wet my pants."
Berry says he didn't say anything. He couldn't see Byrd, and he says he didn't know what was going on.
"I didn't know what to think. I never saw them chain him up. I don't know how he was chained or where he was chained."
Soon after, King and Brewer joined Berry in his truck. King was in the driver's seat, Russell by the door on the passenger side. "They started dragging him down that dirt road," says Berry.
The truck was so loud that Berry says he couldn't hear anything.
"Russell had looked back one time and started laughing and said, 'Look, he's rolling' or 'He's bouncing around all over the place,' remembers Berry. "They were having fun. They were acting like they were having just a good old time."
The truck careened around a bend, and Byrd's body swung off the road, striking a culvert that decapitated him. Berry says King kept driving.
"He turned around and drove on out and drove for a little ways, and stopped the truck and got out and untied him," says Berry. "He threw the chain in the back of the truck and got back in."
In their prison meeting, Berry and Byrd's son Ross talked for two hours.
What was Ross' first reaction? "When I seen him in, I pictured myself right there where he was at, to be honest with you."
Did he believe Berry, that he couldn't do anything to help Ross' father?
"I told him that he should have helped," says Ross. "I also told him that the only person who really knows what happened is the three men who was there, James Byrd and God."
Ross says that he and the man convicted of helping murder his father prayed together.
"When I walked in the building, that's the first thing he did. He wanted to pray, and you know, I respect him for that," says Ross. "I respect him for saying that he was sorry."
In the years since her father's death, Renee Mullins has become an advocate for hate crimes legislation. And both of the Byrd children are now fighting the death penalty, even in the cases of their father's killers.
"I would like them to think about it every day myself," says Ross. "You know, give them 40 years. Give them life in prison without parole, and let them think about it. Maybe they can change their ways."
"You got to watch who you be around, you have to know the content of the character of the people you are hanging around. The only thing I know in this life is that we make our own decisions and I know he decided to pick up James Byrd that night."
It took five years, three trials and countless tears before Byrd's children could hear firsthand what had happened to their father - from a young man sentenced to life in prison and a lifetime of regret.
"I wish I'd have been able to help him," says Berry. "I wish I wouldn't have chickened out … I think I let a lot of people down."