(CN) – The Fifth Circuit on Thursday rejected claims of poor legal representation by a white man on death row for the gruesome 1998 truck-dragging murder of a black man in Texas.
John William King, 43, was convicted of kidnapping and murder in 1999 for the death of James Byrd Jr., whose dismembered torso, legs and left arm were found in front of an African-American church in the small East Texas town of Jasper, about 130 miles northeast of Houston.
Byrd’s head was severed when he hit a culvert, and the rest of his body was found a mile and a half away from the church.
Two decades have passed since King and his two white roommates were accused of beating Byrd, then chaining his ankles to the back of a Ford pickup truck and dragging him three miles down a rural concrete road.
The crime sparked calls for racial equality and led to the passage of state and federal hate crimes laws, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevent Act, which former President Barack Obama signed into law in October 2009.
The Fifth Circuit revived King’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim last year, one of 21 claims that he first raised in a federal habeas petition in June 2001.
In a unanimous opinion on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based appeals court ruled that King had not shown his attorney could have done more in presenting his case for actual innocence.
“We conclude that the defense reasonably handled the DNA evidence,” U.S. Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King wrote in the 25-page ruling.
The judges found that King failed to show “that the strongest evidence against him could be mitigated or explained away by competent counsel.”
At the time of the murder, a blood trail led investigators to what appeared to be the scene of a fight in which police found a cigarette lighter engraved with the word “Possum,” King’s prison nickname, and the letters “KKK.”
A cigarette butt containing King’s DNA found at the scene also connects him to the crime, the Fifth Circuit found, as does his jailhouse note to Lawrence Russell Brewer, who admitted to the killing, where he stated they “had made history.”
Brewer was executed by lethal injection in 2011. A third man, Shawn Berry, is serving life in prison.
The Fifth Circuit ruling also takes into account King’s membership in a white-supremacist gang, and his ambition to recruit others to his cause.
“We are also convinced that even if counsel could have done more to undermine the racial-motive theory, no prejudice arose from failing to do so,” the ruling states. “The state’s case that King harbored violent white-supremacist views was multifaceted and ironclad. King was part of a white-supremacist prison gang; he wrote about his desire to expand that gang; he spoke to others about using racial violence as an initiation ritual; he had a lighter that said KKK on it; and he drew pictures of racial lynching. No matter how skillful they were, counsel could not make this evidence go away.”
King, who was born in Atlanta, does not yet have an execution date.