Jasper's stand

Shawn Berry was the hardest suspect to convict of the dragging murder of James Byrd Jr. Did his role in the killing come second to the town's need to clear its name?

By Ashley Craddock
Published November 18, 1999 1:00PM (EST)

After almost two days of deliberation, a pinch-faced jury on Thursday
returned a verdict of capital murder -- and later a life sentence -- against defendant Shawn Allen Berry for the June 7, 1998, dragging death of James Byrd Jr. Some question whether Berry's trial has been a test of a community's stand against racism rather than an examination of an individual's guilt or innocence.

The verdict marked the end of a grueling series of three trials that has put the East Texas town of Jasper on the national map as a locus of racism and hate crimes. All three defendants -- Berry, Bill King and Russell Brewer -- have been found guilty of capital murder. King and Russell have been sentenced to die by lethal injection. The jury sentenced Berry to life in prison, which carries a minimum of 40 calendar years served before parole.

Byrd, a 49-year-old black man, was drunk and staggering down the side of the road when the three white men picked him up in the back of Berry's pickup truck. The four men then headed out into the thick piney woods that ring Jasper on all sides. On a logging road in the middle of nowhere, some combination of the white men beat Byrd, chained him to the back of the pickup with a 24-foot galvanized chain and dragged him until his head tore off on a culvert. They dumped his body more than three miles from their starting point, in front of a small wooden church attended by the members of the black community.

Berry, who fingered his codefendants in a confession made a little more than 24 hours after the killing, maintained that he was a scared-rabbit sidekick roped into a nightmare ride orchestrated by Brewer and King. Much of the prosecution's case focused on convincing the jury that Berry actually drove the truck on what District Attorney Guy James Gray positioned as a fatal joyride.

The murder gained immediate notoriety. In its wake, the Ku Klux Klan, New Black Panthers, Jesse Jackson and the national media all descended on Jasper. A quiet community that has always prided itself on a genteel, don't-rock-the-boat attitude toward race, Jasper suddenly had something to prove: that it was not a bastion of old-school racism. The necessary evidence? A trio of death sentences. "Jasper was traumatized by this event," says Royce Robb, a retired Methodist minister concerned about the trial's fairness who watched the verdict being delivered Thursday. "It shocked Jasper. Ever since it happened I've heard the same mantra: 'We're going to put all three to death.'"

King and Brewer, both avowed racists, proved relatively easy to hang. Berry has been a harder case. No one ever said he was a racist. In fact, some 16 character witnesses explicitly testified that he was not. Until the Byrd killing, no evidence existed that Berry harbored secret race hatreds. At worst he was a drunk-driving loaf-about who sometimes slapped his girlfriend and once went to boot camp for breaking into a deserted warehouse.

With the finding of capital murder, the town has, at least in theory, cleared its name. "We were apprehensive at first," said Clara Taylor, Byrd's sister, "but we're pleased with the verdict. And I'm not sure we had any doubt about a fair trial."

Whether the trial was fair -- whether Berry could have gotten a fair trial in a town so desperate to clear its name -- remains open to some debate. Especially given the fact that the jury that made the finding was entirely white. "This is doubtlessly a race crime and it has become a bigger racial question," said Robb, who signed a petition to change the venue of the trial. "Can an all-white jury in Jasper convict a white man of a race crime? The answer is yes, and that's what the trial was about. But that's not what it was supposed to be about. It was supposed to be about whether or not this one man was guilty of murder."

Sitting in the courtroom as the jury retired to deliberate the sentence, Robb confronted George Coleman, an alternate juror who was dismissed after closing arguments, and then told the press that he believed Berry was "100 percent guilty."

"You think he's guilty, don't you?" Robb said. "I have to tell you I don't agree at all. I think he was guilty of obstructing justice, and probably of lying, but not of murder."

"That's your opinion, then," Coleman said.

In Coleman's mind, the prosecution made a clear case against Berry as an individual, not a symbol. And in Coleman's eyes, the worst evidence against Berry was Berry himself. "When he was on the stand, it was lie after lie after lie. To me, you could see straight through him, like a ghost," he said. "Everything he said turned to a lie."

Coleman admitted to having difficulty understanding what Berry's motive might have been. Still, he couldn't shake his conviction that the young man was guilty. "I stayed up for the last two days, talking and talking to myself, trying to put the pieces together. When I did, it all came back to one thing: Berry must have been the driver. If I was back there with the jury, I'd be going for the same sentence as those other two guys. I believe Berry was worse than the other two. He was the driver for sure; he was in full control of the situation."

After finding Berry guilty, the jury listened to more than two hours of often emotional sentencing testimony from Berry's friends and family, many of whom begged the jury -- several members of which broke into tears -- to spare Berry's life. But while the prosecution treated weeping friends and family gently, it tore into defense attorney Lum Hawthorn's expert witness, a psychiatrist named Ed Grapone.

Grapone had testified against both Brewer and King, saying both men posed a threat to society. But he testified on behalf of Berry, saying he posed no such threat.
However, under cross-examination, he admitted the likelihood that if Berry were given a life sentence, having been convicted of the most brutal racially motivated hate crime in recent American memory, he would probably join a supremacist group in prison.

Nonetheless, the jury failed to sentence Berry to death.

The sentence and the finding of capital murder is Jasper's attempt to show the world its ability to dispense justice. "I think it sends out a pretty good message that any of that sort of monkey business isn't going to be put up with in this town," said one observer, standing across the street from the courthouse.

Shaking his head inside the courthouse, Robb had a different take on the verdict. "The greatest tragedy that ever happened to Jasper County was this dragging death. The second greatest tragedy is the conviction of Shawn Berry for capital murder."

Ashley Craddock

Ashley Craddock is a journalist living in San Francisco.

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