John William King Executed in Infamous Lynching Case, Said Attorneys Had Violated His Right to Present Innocence Defense

Texas has executed John William King (pictured), one of three men convicted of the brutal lynching of James Byrd, Jr., after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in his case. King’s lawyers had asked the Court to grant a stay of his scheduled April 24, 2019 execution after a divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals voted 5-4 on April 22 to permit the execution to proceed. King, an avowed white supremacist, had maintained since the time of his arrest that he was not present at the time of King’s murder and did not participate in the killing, and he had repeatedly but unsuccessfully demanded that his lawyers present an innocence defense at trial. King’s appeal lawyers had asked the Texas appeals court and the Supreme Court to halt his execution to review King’s claim that his lawyers’ actions denied King the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.

King says he left Byrd and his co-defendants, Lawrence Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry, prior to Byrd’s murder. When King’s trial lawyers decided to concede his guilt, he tried to replace them. He wrote letters to the court and to a Dallas newspaper describing his innocence claims and complaining that his attorneys would not present them. King’s appellate attorneys argued that his trial lawyers’ concession of guilt violated the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in McCoy v. Louisiana, which said, “With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Texas appeals court dismissed King’s application for review without addressing the merits of his claim.

Judge Michael Keasler, joined by three other judges, dissented, citing “substantial” unresolved factual and legal questions. Judge Keasler wrote: “A death-sentenced man who has asserted his innocence since his capital-murder trial has asked us to review his claim that his trial lawyer overrode his express wishes to pursue a defense consistent with his innocence. In light of … the horrible stain this Court’s reputation would suffer if King’s claims of innocence are one day vindicated (or, perhaps, if the Supreme Court eventually decides that McCoy should apply retroactively), I think we ought to take our time and decide this issue unhurriedly. I would grant the stay.” The U.S. Supreme Court denied King’s stay application without comment.

Ahead of King’s execution date, the Beaumont Enterprise interviewed community members in Jasper, Texas to understand how King, who grew up in the same small town as Byrd, came to be associated with one of the nation’s most notorious hate crimes. Capt. James Carter, a black man who worked for the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years, has known King since he was a child. “My boys liked him,” Carter said. “He came and spent the night with us often. I treated him like my own.” When Byrd was killed, Carter and his boss had to tell Byrd’s family. Ronald King, John William King’s father, struggled to understand how his son became a white supremacist, and linked the change to time his son spent in prison for a series of burglaries he committed at age 20. “Something happened to my boy in prison. Something bad,” Ronald King had told his priest, Rev. Ron Foshage. “He never had this kind of hate in his heart.” While in prison, the Reverend said, King had been sexually assaulted by an African-American prisoner.

Byrd’s family did not blame King’s family for the murder, and showed kindness to Ronald during the trial. According to Foshage, “Every day after the trial had ended for the day, Mr. Byrd and other members of the Byrd family would touch Ronald on the arm as they were leaving. He was so grateful for their kindness.” “We as parents raise our children to do the right thing and not hate,” said Louvon Harris, James Byrd Jr.’s older sister. “But once they’re not in your control anymore, we’re not sure what kids will grow up to be. …There were no winners in this. We felt their pain, as well.” Shortly before the trial, Jasper residents gathered to tear down a fence separating racially segregated sections of the town cemetery. According to the Enterprise, if King chose to have his body returned to Jasper after the execution, “he’ll be buried next to his parents and just 100 yards from James Byrd Jr.”

(Monique Batson, King’s fate rests with Supreme Court, Beaumont Enterprise, April 24, 2019; Jolie McCullough, Texas execution set for John William King in racist dragging death of James Byrd Jr., The Texas Tribune, April 24, 2019; Monique Batson and Andrea Whitney, Clues, but no firm answers in King’s path to infamy, Beaumont Enterprise, April 23, 2019.) Read the court rulings in King’s appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the pleadings filed in the U.S. Supreme Court. See U.S. Supreme Court, Executions, and Representation. [Story updated to reflect that the U.S. Supreme Court denied King’s application for a stay and that Texas carried out the execution as scheduled.]