Fifth Circuit to Review Notorious Dragging Death Conviction

John William King is on death row for the notorious 1998 slaying of a black man chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged along a bumpy rural East Texas road. (Photo via Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

(CN) — A white man on death row in Texas for the gruesome truck-dragging murder of a black man convinced the Fifth Circuit to let him argue claims his trial attorneys are to blame for his conviction.

John William King, 42, was convicted of kidnapping and murder in Jasper, a small East Texas town, in 1999, for the death of James Byrd Jr.

King and his two white roommates were accused of beating Byrd, then chaining his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragging him three miles down a blacktop road outside Jasper on June 7, 1998.

Byrd’s head was severed when his body hit a culvert. King and his roommates reportedly discarded Byrd’s remains in front of an African-American church in Jasper before going to a barbecue.

King filed a federal habeas petition in June 2001, raising 21 claims. U.S. District Judge Marcia A. Crone denied all the claims in June 2016. Crone also denied King a certificate of appealability, which must be issued before a prisoner can appeal a habeas denial.

King then appealed to the Fifth Circuit. He asked it to review five of his habeas claims. Four allege his two trial attorneys were ineffective and one says Crone denied him a fair habeas hearing.

The New Orleans-based appeals court dismissed all but one claim Tuesday, giving King a chance to argue his trial counsel “was ineffective in presenting his case for actual innocence.”

“King contends that there were only a few pieces of circumstantial evidence tying him to the scene of the fight and that each of those pieces of evidence had an innocent explanation, but his trial counsel offered only confusing and disjointed explanations,” a three-judge panel wrote in a unanimous, per curiam decision.

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.”

King and his roommates, Shawn Berry and Lawrence Brewer, were convicted of murder in separate trials in which prosecutors said the men offered to give Byrd a ride to his Jasper home, then took him to a remote county road, beat him and urinated on him before chaining him to the back of Berry’s pickup.

At King’s trial, prosecutors showed the jury the lighter and what they said were King’s sandals, which had Byrd’s blood on them. They also claimed King had become a white supremacist while serving a sentence for burglary in a Texas state prison.

“Several witnesses testified about how [King] refused to go to the home of an African-American and would leave a party if an African-American arrived. … Among the tattoos covering [King’s] body were a woodpecker in a Ku Klux Klansman’s uniform making an obscene gesture; a ‘patch’ incorporating ‘KKK,’ a swastika, and ‘Aryan Pride’; and a black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree,” according to the Fifth Circuit’s Aug. 8 order granting King leave to appeal the denial of his federal habeas petition.

King, who was born in Atlanta, claims in court filings that the evidence used to convict him – the lighter and his DNA found on cigarette butts – was circumstantial and did not place him at the fight scene.

He says the bloody sandals belonged to Berry’s brother, Lewis Berry.

After King was convicted, Texas prison officials intercepted his letter to Brewer, in which he reportedly wrote, “Regardless of the outcome of this, we have made history. Death before dishonor. Sieg Heil!”

Byrd’s gut-wrenching murder evoked the history of blacks being lynched in the South and spurred the passage of a hate-crimes law in Texas, as well as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which former President Barack Obama signed into law in October 2009.

The Fifth Circuit gave King 30 days to submit a brief on his claim. The Texas Attorney General’s Office must respond within 15 days after King files his brief.

The AG’s Office did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on the ruling.

Berry is serving a life sentence for Byrd’s murder. Brewer was executed by lethal injection in 2011. Brewer was unrepentant to the end.

“As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth,” he told Houston’s CBS affiliate KHOU the day before he was executed.

King’s lead defense attorney, Haden “Sonny” Cribbs, died in June.  His trial co-counsel, Brack Jones, declined comment Wednesday.

King’s appeals lawyer, A. Richard Ellis, based in Mill Valley, California, did not immediately respond to a message left by The Associated Press.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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