Dragging Death Haunts Quiet Texas Town
Unav Wade scoffs at the talk of Jasper’s healing and reconciliation in the five years since James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death for being black.
Don’t get her wrong; Wade says she enjoys life in this racially balanced city of about 8,300 tucked in the woods of east Texas. It’s just that she believes Jasper’s black-and-white divide hasn’t narrowed much.
“I do have some really nice white friends here, I do. It’s not many, but they love me and I know it,” Wade said. “But the ones who are not so nice, I don’t think they’ve changed.”
Three of the not-so-nice ones are in prison, one for life and the others awaiting the executioner’s needle for chaining Byrd’s ankles to a gray 1982 Ford pickup truck bumper in the early morning hours of June 7, 1998, and dragging him to pieces along rural Huff Creek Road.
Had Byrd’s remains been strewn through a white neighborhood, not in the predominantly black area where it happened, Wade believes his killers might not be behind bars today.
“They’d have covered it up and we’d have never known,” said Wade, 72, revealing an honest cynicism born of a cross burned in her yard near Mobile, Ala., in the 1950s, followed by a 1960s’ move into a “wasp’s nest” of bigotry in Alameda, Calif.
Wade isn’t impressed by outward signs of racial healing, such as the park that bears Byrd’s name and the 1999 removal of an iron fence that segregated the area’s 166-year-old cemetery.
“There are no black people buried on that [white] side that I know about,” she said. “It’s still separated.”
Still, Wade doesn’t report enduring any bold-faced hate in her 30-odd years in Jasper. The same cannot be said for Byrd.
In 27 years as a Texas state trooper, Billy Rowles had seen his share of auto-pedestrian collisions. Six months into his first term as Jasper County’s sheriff, Rowles figured he’d be investigating another one the morning of June 7, 1998, when he was called from a weekend getaway.
“At first I thought he got hit by a car and got hung up underneath it,” Rowles recalled. “It still appeared that way until we started walking the 3.1 miles. Probably a mile into that walk, it became real apparent it wasn’t a hit-and-run.”
The bloodstains marking Byrd’s path weaved side to side, sometimes into the grass off the road. There were no tire tracks in the grass, meaning that the vehicle stayed on the pavement.
Rowles began to envision a man bound at the feet when he saw the gouge marks above Byrd’s ankles: “With no tracks on the left side of the road and none on the right, things just started calculating. The old heart started racing. Something ain’t right.”
Things fell together quickly that Sunday. A boy reported to Jasper police that he had seen Byrd riding with three white people early that morning. Investigators found a tool with the initials “SB” and a lighter with the word “Possum.” Then they found drag marks and evidence of a scuffle on a dirt logging path leading onto the road.
So Rowles had a “pretty good clue what happened,” but still didn’t know why. When his men mentioned local troublemaker Shawn Berry drove a primer-gray pickup matching the description given by the boy, they made the first arrest and learned the answer.
“When it really struck me,” Rowles said, “was when [Berry] broke and confessed about” what happened, although Berry denied he had committed the killing. Rowles recalled Berry’s expletive-laced, racist way of saying that the men wanted to pick on a black person. “That just echoed in my head for the next five years. That’s when we realized what we had.”
Word of the killing spread, spawning fear in the black community. Byrd’s sister, Houston schoolteacher Clara Taylor, had been in Jasper that Saturday visiting him and the rest of her family at a wedding shower.
She got the call shortly after noon Sunday that he was dead.
“We thought mostly it might be a robbery or some other kind of foul play,” Taylor said. A lynching “never crossed my mind.”
Byrd, 49, was widely portrayed afterward as a heavy drinker whose judgment might have been impaired by too much alcohol. Although that could be true, Taylor said, there’s another side of her brother that outsiders didn’t get to know.
“He was a talker, a very smooth talker at times. He was a very good singer, an accomplished piano player and a trumpet player. He had a voice like Al Green -- to me, he sounded even better than Al Green. The personal problems he was dealing with, those were his problems. They never hurt anyone else.”
By Monday evening, an appalled nation was learning about the grisliest hate crime in recent memory. Meanwhile, Berry and friends John William “Possum” King and Lawrence Russell Brewer -- all with nonviolent criminal records -- were in the Jasper County jail charged with capital murder.
Then more questions. Would Rowles and Dist. Atty. Guy James Gray -- both white -- vigorously pursue Berry, King and Brewer, or would Jasper try to sweep the ugliness under the rug, as happened across the South many times before? And could prosecutors persuade jurors the men had committed not only murder, but a second major felony -- in this case, kidnapping -- an element essential for the crime to qualify for the death penalty under Texas law?
Taylor, unlike Wade, was confident that justice would be served all along.
“We were very trusting,” Taylor said. “I think because [authorities] were so open with us and straightforward -- they came to our home and talked to us -- that’s why we had so much confidence in them.”
Rowles said justice was colorblind.
“Everybody thinks we prosecuted a hate crime,” he said. “In our opinion, we were just prosecuting a real bad murder. We did nothing on this because of race. This was a bad case and we worked it from Day One as hard as we could. We were prosecuting a terrible murder that turned out to be a hate crime.”
Gray acknowledges the skepticism among his peers that he would be successful.
“In the first few months of this thing, the older members of the law enforcement establishment and the older members of the bar were saying this can’t be done,” Gray said, referring to the prosecution of three whites for killing a black man. “I think we broke a mold there.”
Walter Diggles, head of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, whose job is to attract economic development to this historically depressed region, was among the black community leaders calling for calm in the days, weeks and months after the slaying. There were two New Black Panther marches, one coinciding with a Ku Klux Klan rally.
Townsfolk mostly stayed out of the mix and allowed the outsiders to make their points and, more important, leave town.
“It was so important for the law enforcement officials to make some very fast decisions about how this case was going to be handled,” Diggles said. “They made those quick decisions very well, very openly. They said, ‘This is what it looks like and we’re going to open it to the world.’ ”
Gray, now in private practice, persuaded three different juries that Berry, King and Brewer kidnapped and killed Byrd and were guilty of capital murder. They condemned King and Brewer, both of whom were racist prison gang members.
To this day, Berry, 28, sticks by his original statement that he had “nothing to do with it whatsoever” and that King, 29, and Brewer, 36, were the real killers. The Jasper County jury didn’t buy it and came within two votes of reuniting him with his buddies on death row. Instead, Berry will be eligible for parole in 2038.
Even though Gray and Rowles believe that Berry was driving the truck when Byrd was dragged -- Berry claims that it was King -- Gray says Berry had a chance to help himself by helping authorities.
“If he had come forward before he was handcuffed, he would have had a lot of bargaining points,” Gray said. “But until we got DNA results, we did not have a case I was comfortable with. There was a month in there that Shawn Berry could have worked out a lot better deal than what the jury gave him.”
Appeals courts have already upheld all three convictions and sentences.
Rowles, who will retire after completing his second term next year, and Gray, who is considering a run for the Court of Criminal Appeals, agreed that King likely will be the first white man in Texas executed for killing an African American since 1854, according to the best records available.
“I think he’s on a fast track,” Gray said, noting that King has been uncooperative in his appeals even though he continues to deny that he was even there that night. In a 2001 interview with the Associated Press, King said he was convicted for what he believes, not what he did.
“I’m proud to be white,” he said. “And if they’re going to kill me because of that, so be it. I’m not going to denounce my beliefs and be subjugated by society.”
Through all the havoc and pain and unwanted publicity -- a Showtime movie premiering Sunday that depicts the crime promises to reopen old wounds -- Unav Wade says she’s content running a beauty shop in her adopted hometown.
“I still say in spite of all that’s happened, I wouldn’t live nowhere else but Jasper,” she said.