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BRYAN -- With James Byrd's family members sitting grim-faced in the front row, a sobbing Lawrence Russell Brewer told a stunned courtroom Friday that Byrd's throat was cut before he was dragged to bits along a lonely country road in Jasper County.
Minutes later, the 32-year-old ex-con broke into choking sobs and turned his back on the courtroom as defense attorney Layne Walker showed him autopsy pictures of Byrd's mutilated body.
"I don't want to look at them pictures," Brewer said, doubled over. "I don't want to look at them."
His dramatic testimony -- the first claim that Byrd was attacked with a knife before he was dragged to death -- ended Brewer's weeklong capital murder trial. Final arguments are scheduled for Monday.
Brewer admitted being at the murder scene but said he just kicked Byrd once and didn't participate in the killing.
Prosecutors threw cold water on Brewer's claims of accidental involvement when they read excerpts from a 1993 letter to his estranged wife:
"I feel as though I've been (dragged) 120 miles, chained by my feet, to the bumper of a Corvette doing about 90 mph."
That metaphor is eerily similar to the way Byrd was killed June 7, 1998.
Brewer called it a coincidence.
Prosecutors say Brewer's testimony helped their case.
"Remarkable," Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray said after Friday's session. "That's a story I wasn't anticipating. I think I could've anticipated 'wasn't there,' or 'was there but didn't do anything,' but to testify you were there and you kicked and weren't involved in the rest of it, I'd say that wasn't one I was anticipating.
"He placed himself at the scene and he placed himself actively involved."
Byrd's sister was unmoved by the testimony.
"The most interesting thing today was the performance of Mr. Brewer himself," said Mary Verrette, adding later: "Mr. Brewer, having had a year or several months to think about this, put on a very good show."
Brewer, taking the stand to save his life, said he, John William King and Shawn Allen Berry had been joy riding earlier that night. At one point, they used the logging chain in the truck to pull down a mailbox in front of a Jasper home.
They came upon Byrd, drunk and walking home from a party, and Berry offered him a ride home, much to King's chagrin.
Instead, they ended up on a logging road six miles east of town.
The fight began as King and Brewer stood behind the parked truck.
"Let me smoke with you white boys," Brewer quoted Byrd as saying.
Seconds later, King and Byrd were on the ground brawling.
Brewer testified he kicked Byrd's ribs once to break up the fight and then sprayed the victim's face with black paint. Seconds later, Berry came up behind Byrd.
Brewer heard a click, then a swooshing sound as Berry's arm made a sweeping motion.
"Byrd had his hands up here," Brewer testified, motioning with hands to his face, "and I guess that's when Shawn cut his throat."
The testimony was a startling twist to a brutal story that has attracted global attention.
Prosecutors allege Byrd's murder was carried out to draw attention to the racist gang to which Brewer and King belonged.
While juries in two trials had heard the grisly details of Byrd's death -- chained by his ankles to a pickup and dragged to pieces along three miles of road -- not even law officers were aware Byrd's throat had been cut first.
Gray wasn't convinced Byrd's throat was slashed, saying there wasn't enough blood at the fight scene to confirm it happened. And the autopsy showed Byrd was alive and attempting to hold his head up as he was being dragged, which Gray said doesn't jibe with a victim whose throat has been slashed.
King already has been sentenced to death. Berry's trial is pending. Brewer's trial was moved to Bryan, 150 miles west of Jasper, on a change of venue.
Brewer said he and King, both shaken, retreated to the cab of Berry's pickup after the slashing.
"I was in like a state of shock and I went to sit down directly in the truck," Brewer said.
Berry continued to savage Byrd, Brewer said.
"Tell him to leave that guy alone," Brewer testified that he told King. "He's already cut his throat and now he's kicking him."
Brewer testified Berry then pulled a logging chain out of his truck bed and tied it to Byrd's limp body.
"I said personally, 'You're not going to drag this man like you did that mailbox?'" Brewer said. "And he said, 'I know where we're taking him.'"
Berry backed up over Byrd's body, then drove along the dark roads.
"I told Shawn again, 'Pull over and take the man off ' the chain, Brewer testified. "He said, 'We're almost there. Don't worry.'"
They stopped in front of a predominantly black church, where the remainders of Byrd's body were left.
Earlier in his testimony, Brewer tried to explain some of the racist letters he had written to King and others.
One included a reference to "roll a tire," which prosecutors say was slang for an assault on a black.
Brewer said the tire reference was about a fellow inmate's dream to put a black man in a tractor tire and roll him down a hill.
In the same letter, Brewer wrote, "well, I did it and am no longer a virgin. It was a rush and I'm still licking my lips for more."
He told jurors it was a reference to performing oral sex.
Another letter contained a racial epithet.
Brewer argued he didn't write the racial slur and suggested someone inserted the word.
First of all I would like to thank God for allowing me to be here again for this worthy cause against hate crimes. Last Sunday was my father's 50th birthday. I, my brother Ross, my sister Jamie and my baby Tayla celebrated it with him at the cemetery. My father loved life and always took the whole month of May to celebrate his day. This month has been the longest month of the year for me and my family.
As I come before you today it still sends chills through my body just knowing the reasoning behind my being here. I find it difficult to speak today because moments like these let me know that the fact of the matter is that my father is gone and has been for almost a year. I feel in my heart I am doing the right thing by supporting this bill so that no other family will have to suffer my tragic fate. I do not want to sound rhetorical, but I feel as if I have to tell the story in this way. For a moment, I want you to imagine, if you can, walking home from an anniversary party, when three individuals pick you up, take you to a remote area, beat you repeatedly, then while you are still alive chain you by your ankles to the back of a truck and then proceed to drag you for about two and a half to three miles down a logging road. The point in which you actually die after enduring a tremendous amount of pain and broken bones is when your head and arm are ripped from your body like a piece of paper is torn. Now stop imagining. After coming back form the road my dad was dragged to death on, how can we not want to do the right thing and pass this bill? What if it was your father, mother, sister, brother or even an animal that you love? An animal should not have to undergo what my father went through on the early morning of June 7, 1998.
This was not just a crime against a 49-year-old African-American that was disabled, but a crime against all humanity. God forbid if it was you. I hope that you would want the people -- your fellow citizens -- to do something about it and not just sit on their thumbs.
I urge this bill to be enacted so my family would at last have some consolation for our anguish. This bill would let me know my dad did not die in vain. To not pass this bill is unfair to police officers and the justice department who work hard to keep people safe. I am here today to be a witness that this, no matter what, cannot be tolerated. It is a very shameful act to be killed because of your race, handicap, gender or sexual orientation.
I have learned from living 28 years that it takes more energy to hate than to love. As a nation we must renounce violence and embrace the teachings of nonviolence. My father's untimley death lets me know that despite decades of laws, too many people have too little respect for the rights of others, whose only crime is being different. My father's legacy must live on but hate crimes must die.
In closing, remember: never take life for granted. One minute you are here and the next you are not. Let's not put this bill off and let another innocent victim, like my dad, die by the hands of haters. No law will change the events of June 7th, 1998 but today, nearly a year later, by me being here I hope I can prevent any other acts of violence of this nature from occurring in America. Thank you for allowing me to open my heart to you. May God touch and bless each one of you as we depart.
Whereas, there have been numerous reported incidents of prisoners or former prisoners who were members of white supremacist organizations committing violent hate crimes against African- Americans; and
Whereas violent hate crimes have been committed against African-Americans or African-American organizations such as the NAACP in most every region of the nation including New York, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois, Washington, California, Louisiana; and
Whereas, there are three suspects who have been arrested and charged with the murder of James Byrd, Jr., two of whom have apparent ties to white supremacist organizations in prison and since leaving prison, and tattoos of Black Men hanging from a tree with a duck in a klan uniform nearby,
Now Therefore Be It Resolved that the NAACP pledge to support fundraising efforts to revitalize the Lone Star Community Center in Jasper, Texas, and
Be It Further Resolved that the NAACP support efforts to rename the Lone Star Community Center the James Byrd, Jr. Community Center for Racial Healing, dedicated to promoting civil rights, social justice, education, cultural awareness and economic empowerment; and
Be It Further Resolved that the NAACP requests that the United States Attorney General appoint a racially and geographically diverse Task Force (including citizens) to investigate, monitor and take appropriate action against Hate Crimes committed by prisoners or former prisoners of penal institutions who have past or current allegiances to white supremacist organizations; and
Now Therefore Be It Resolved that the NAACP requests that the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights investigate fully whether there is a shared responsibility for the James Byrd, Jr. murder beyond the three suspects who have been charged criminally and take the necessary criminal or civil action against individuals or groups that aided, assisted or encouraged the persons who committed the crime to do so.
(Pictured: NAACP State President Gary Bledsoe and NAACP National President Kweisi Mfume at a press conference on this subject in Beaumont, June 13, 1998.)
This page last updated November 11, 2002. Texas NAACP, 1107 East 11th Street, Austin, Texas 78701. Telephone (512) 322-9547 or (512) 322-9992. Fax (512) 322-0757. Email.