UPDATE: The Beaumont Enterprise reports that the execution of white supremacist and convicted hate crime murderer Lawrence Russell Brewer has been carried out. The execution was scheduled for 6 p.m., and Brewer was pronounced dead at 6:21 p.m.
Lawrence Russell Brewer will die tonight in the execution chamber on death row in Huntsville, and I just can’t bring myself to feel sorry for him. Not even a little.
Brewer is one of two men sentenced to die after being convicted of the June 7, 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in my hometown of Jasper, Texas. John William King also faces the death penalty, but he continues to appeal his sentence. A third man, Shawn Berry, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Most of you, I am sure, have heard of James Byrd Jr., and how King, Brewer and Berry offered him a ride one night, then beat him up, chained him by his ankles to the bumper of a pickup truck and dragged him down a back road until his body hit a culvert and was torn apart. A pathologist testified that Byrd was alive when he hit the culvert.
King, Brewer and Berry were arrested within a couple of days. The story that came out in the weeks and months afterward was that Brewer and King met in prison where they both joined a white supremacist group, a splinter of the KKK called the Confederate Knights of America. King had lived in Jasper, and when the two men got out of prison, they went back to Jasper, where King and Berry became friends.
Evidence also indicated that the men — at least, King and Brewer — were intent on starting a race war. So they set out to commit as horrific a crime as possible, expecting that to be the spark that set off a blaze of racial hatred. Luckily, that didn’t happen, although not for lack of trying by outsiders on both sides — the KKK and the Black Panthers — who flocked to Jasper during King’s trial there. Brewer’s trial was moved to Bryan.
It was the murder of James Byrd Jr. that finally got the Texas Legislature to pass a state hate crimes law. And it was the steadfast insistence of Byrd’s family that helped make sure that the Texas hate crimes law, named in recognition of James Byrd Jr., included lesbian and gay people. The family, especially matriarch Stella Byrd, was also instrumental in getting a federal hate crimes law passed in 2009. The federal law is called the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Law, in recognition of the Jasper victim and Matthew Shepard, the young gay man murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming just months after James Byrd was killed.
The Byrd family has, throughout their ordeal over the past 13 years, remained a model of courage and even forgiveness. When others wanted to respond with anger and violence, they refused. When it might have been easier to grasp the spotlight, the family chose not to. When it would have been easier to insist on distancing themselves and their personal tragedy from being linked with hate crimes against LGBTs, the Byrd family instead became quiet advocates for the community.
Even now, as the first of James Byrd Jr.’s killers faces execution, Byrd’s son Ross is speaking out against the death penalty. Ross Byrd, now 32, told Reuters this week that he would have been satisfied with Brewer being sentenced to life in prison. “You can’t fight murder with murder,” Ross Byrd said. “Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”
James Byrd Jr.’s sister, Clara Taylor, told NPR she plans to be there tonight in the death chamber when Brewer is executed, because she believes someone from the family should be there. “He had choices,” Taylor said of Brewer. “He made the wrong choices.” Still, that’s a much calmer response that you would expect from someone whose brother was so brutally murdered.
I wish I could be more like the Byrd family, but I have to admit, I want to see some revenge. I grew up in Jasper; my mother’s family has lived there for generations, and many of my family members live there now. I still think of Jasper as “home,” even though I haven’t lived there myself for more than 20 years. And even though I never knew James Byrd Jr., I did know some of the members of his extended family. And I do know how his murder affected my hometown.
This story from the Associated Press, published here in the Washington Post, talks about how, even after all these years, the stigma of one of the most horrific racially motivated crimes in memory, continues to affect Jasper. I still see “that look” on people’s faces when I tell them I am from Jasper. I still hear people talk about how awful Jasper must be, and what racists the people who live there must be.
And I know those things aren’t true, and it is painful to know people think of my home, my family that way.
Is there racism in Jasper? Yes, without a doubt — just like there is racism and racist people here in Dallas, in Los Angeles, in New York — everywhere. But is Jasper a place where whites and blacks hate each other, and treat each other badly all the time because of skin color? No. Jasper has its problems, sure. But it is no better and no worse than anywhere else. And it is too easy to dismiss what happened to James Byrd Jr. as something horrible that happened in Jasper but couldn’t happen “in our town” because “our town isn’t like that.” See, Jasper isn’t like that either. There just happened to be three men — who just happened to be living in Jasper at the time — who were “like that.”
Even Cassy Burleson, a researcher from Baylor University who has been studying Jasper since Byrd was murdered, says Jasper does not deserve the reputation that the town got when James Byrd Jr. was murdered. “The irony is how undeserved the label they got was. Just looking at the facts, they were one of the most progressive communities in Texas,” Burleson said in the AP article.
Remember, the rabble-rousers who were trying to stir up trouble — the KKK and the Black Panthers — in the days after the murder and the days of the trials did not come from Jasper. They had to come in from somewhere else. And if you look back at news accounts at the time, none of them got any kind of welcome at all from the townspeople.
The people of Jasper are just like the people of any other town: some good, some not so good, and all just trying to make their way and have a good life. But now they carry with them a reputation that they will have to spend years trying to live down.
I know that a lot of people in Jasper just want to put the past behind them and move on. And perhaps some believe that the execution tonight is a step in that direction. Former Jasper County Sheriff Billy Rowles, who was in office at the time of the murder and who was in charge of the investigation, obviously believes that. He told NPR: “One down and one to go. That’s kind of cruel, but that’s reality.”
But the thing is, we can’t ever let ourselves forget. We have to find a way to move on without forgetting. Because if we forget, that’s when history has a tendency to repeat itself. And we can’t let that happen.
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