Death Watch: King Set to Die for James Byrd Lynching
Last-minute appeal seeks new trial as King maintains his innocence
Only two of 2019's five (so far) scheduled executions have taken place; the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Mark Robertson a stay on April 8 – three days before his execution date – "pending further order." Robertson's last appeal alleges his trial counsel purposely excluded black jurors for fear they wouldn't be sympathetic to the white defendant. And John King, sentenced to die for the infamous murder of James Byrd Jr. in 1998, now hopes to be the next inmate spared – if only temporarily – by the courts.
Byrd's modern-day lynching led to Texas' James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, signed into law in 2001 by Gov. Rick Perry, which controversially (at the time) included not only race but "sexual preference" in its protected classes. And in 2009, Barack Obama signed the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
King's friend Lawrence Brewer was executed in 2011; the third man convicted of Byrd's murder, Shawn Berry, will reportedly be eligible for parole in 2038.
With his execution set for Wednesday, April 24, King's counsel filed appeals on April 10 at the CCA and at state district court in Jasper, where the crime took place, which reaffirm his longstanding claim that he got out of Berry's truck before Byrd was notoriously dragged behind it to his death. King says he told his original counsel he wanted to present this claim at trial and attempted to replace them when they refused and eventually conceded his guilt; his appeal cites the U.S. Supreme Court's 2018 ruling (in McCoy v. Louisiana) that defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to insist counsel maintain innocence at trial, as well as a similar ruling by the CCA, and asks for a completely new trial.
On March 20, King also filed a petition for clemency with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which also insists he was not present for Byrd's murder and cites Brewer's reported statement that he had been pressured to frame King rather than Berry because of King's criminal record and affiliation with white-supremacist prison gangs. (Brewer did not testify at King's trial.)
If no stay is granted, King will be the third Texas execution this year, and the 561st inmate killed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.