death penalty news—-TEXAS

June 7


AG says injection question settled—-Supreme Court in April upheld
execution method killer is contesting

The Texas Attorney General's office filed its response to appeals that led
to this week's last-minute stay of execution of a convicted capital
murderer, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court already upheld the lethal
injection process.

The attorney general also said 11th-hour legal filings to the Texas Court
of Criminal Appeals, like the one that halted Tuesday's execution of
Derrick Juan Sonnier, should be discouraged.

A Texas Defender Service lawyer filed appeals hours before Sonnier was to
be put to death, arguing that death by lethal injection violates Eight
Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court of
Criminal Appeals has not yet ruled in two cases making similar claims.
Sonnier's lawyers also argued that Texas prison officials had made changes
to its execution protocol that have not been reviewed by any court.

The Court of Criminal Appeals halted Sonnier's execution about two hours
before he was to enter Texas' death chamber. He would have been the
state's first inmate executed since the Supreme Court upheld the lethal
injection process in a Kentucky case in April.

Sonnier was condemned for the 1991 rape and stabbing death of Melody
Flowers, 27, and her son Patrick, 2.

The Eighth Amendment argument Sonnier raised was "fully disposed" of by
the Supreme Court when it upheld the 3-drug procedure used in Kentucky,
the Attorney General's Office argued in its response.

The only issue left is whether Texas' execution protocol mirrors
Kentucky's, the attorney general argues. A chart included in the filing
indicates similar doses of the lethal drugs are administered in both

David Dow, Sonnier's appellate attorney, said Friday that the issue is not
that clear-cut.

"It's a misstatement that Kentucky's protocol is exactly like Texas',"
said Dow, of the Texas Defender Service.

A spokeswoman for the AG's office declined comment.

Sonnier was returned to death row in Livingston soon after he received
word of the court's stay.


10 years later, Byrd tragedy still haunts Jasper—-While some residents
want to move on and erase the scar left by the heinous, racial attack, his
family works to keep the black man's memory alive

The faded Ford pickup sits like a pale gray ghost in a shady corner of the
impound lot. Shoved between a chain-link fence and a carport, it has been
quietly tucked away for 10 years.

The tires, the rims, the infamous chain all stained with blood and human
flesh were removed long ago and are stored in a security vault. The

An old barrel of motor oil sits atop the truck's rusty hood, its body
entangled in vines and dead branches.

"I don't like to go near it. I never even opened the door of that truck,"
said Leon Clark, 57, who owns the lot. "I've got to get it out of here for
all the trouble it has caused Jasper, Texas."

In the early-morning hours of June 7, 1998, that truck dragged James Byrd
Jr., an African-American, to his agonizing death, adding another sordid
page to America's painful racial history. 3 white men used a logging chain
to tie Byrd's ankles to the truck's rear bumper, zigzagging him along
bucolic Huff Creek Road for 3.08 miles.

By the time the grisly ride came to a halt, Byrd's head and his right
shoulder and arm had been severed. The 49-year-old man's dentures, his
apartment keys and his wallet were found strewn along the bloodied path.

The event is something that some in this small East Texas town, shrouded
in thick pines, sweet gum, oak and hickory trees, want to forget: It was a
modern-day lynching.

But like the pickup truck, the memory of this heinous hate crime is still
here, festering in a corner. Jasper is haunted by what happened 10 years
ago today. It is here, thick in the air, like the scent of the pine trees
that cling to Huff Creek Road, persistent.

There is no memorial along the road to mark Byrd's passing, not even a
makeshift cross. But a small park in the black section of town, dotted
with wood-frame and trailer homes, bears his name: James Byrd Jr. Memorial
Park. Today that park will be the gathering spot for a commemoration.

Fear of association

Depending on who is doing the talking, some Jasper residents want to
forget Byrd, who in life was a jovial man known for his love of a drink
and the piano and as a doting son, but for not much more.

Now they fear that because of his death, their beloved small town, known
as the Jewel of the Forest, will forever be synonymous with Byrd being
dragged by that truck.

"We're trying to move on if people would let us and stop associating us
for this morbid display," said Liz Street, executive director for the
Jasper/Lake Sam Rayburn Area Chamber of Commerce, which also serves as the
tourist office. Among the visitors is a trickle of college students
researching racial violence, inquiring about directions to Byrd's grave.

"It makes me more defensive of Jasper," Street said.

Yet there are others who want to remember the lynching, to heal and learn
from it.

"He died because he was black not because of the things he did and
people want to coat that, bury that," said Betty Boatner, one of Byrd's
sisters, who is one of several siblings working to raise awareness of hate
crimes. "But as long as we are alive, the world will always know."

A haunted conscience

The memories torture Steven Scott, the key witness in the 3 murder trials
of John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer Jr. and Shawn Allen Berry
that sent 2 of them to death row and 1 to life in prison.

Only 18 at the time, with a love for hip-hop and Master P, Scott was
driving home on Martin Luther King Boulevard about 2 that morning 10 years
ago when he spotted Byrd stumbling along the street.

Scott had been out dancing at a club in Beaumont. He thought about
offering Byrd a ride, but he changed his mind. Byrd appeared to be drunk,
and the teen just wanted to get home after the hourlong drive.

When Scott got home, he saw Byrd pass by, sitting in the bed of that
primer-gray pickup, slumped over, heading to his death. Scott told police
what he saw and was later pivotal in helping authorities crack the case
within 48 hours.

"My conscience told me to stop, and the other conscience told me to keep
going, and I listened to the devil," said Scott, now 28, unemployed and
living in Arkansas. "I could have saved that man's life."

In and out of college with 2 associate's degrees to his name, Scott said
he is waiting to move on from that morning. So far, he can't. After
authorities released his name and address on the affidavit of probable
cause, the black teen starting getting hate mail laced with death threats,
he said. Scott had asked the sheriff's deputies to keep him anonymous.

"I still feel like I'm being watched," Scott said. "I just want to live a
normal life."

What happened to Byrd was an extreme act of violence that horrified the
world, but what happened after the funeral and during the murder trials
shattered Jasper. Media from as far away as Japan descended on this town,
population 8,200.

Members of the white-clad Ku Klux Klan and the black-outfitted New Black
Panther Party held dueling demonstrations outside the Jasper County
Courthouse, where 2 of the 3 trials were held.

King and Brewer now sit on death row. Berry is up for parole when he turns
63 in 2038 and is segregated from the general prison population.

Byrd's grave was desecrated twice. In 2004, his family erected a
4-foot-tall iron fence around the grave in the once-segregated Jasper City

"Even in death, James is still in chains," said another sister, Louvon
Harris of Houston.

Signs of healing

For all the turmoil, Jasper has made strides to heal its image. An
alliance of black and white ministers was formed and is active in town.
Billy Rowles, who was the town's sheriff at the time, realized he didn't
have a diverse police force. So he hired 6 black deputies and dispatchers.

"They portrayed me as a snuff dippin', beer drinkin', redneck East Texas
sheriff, and they had it all right but I wasn't a bigot," said Rowles,
62, who retired 4 years ago.

The local Wal-Mart, known as the town's mall, reflects the demography of
Jasper's working-class residents, almost equally split between black and
white, with a growing Latino population. Recently, a white man shopped for
groceries with a black woman, their interracial child sitting on the
shopping cart.

During an afternoon on Huff Creek Road, an interracial teenage couple sped
by on an all-terrain vehicle.

"People are becoming more open-minded," Scott said. "But the problem with
Jasper is there are no jobs, no opportunities. Where you going to work?
The Jack In The Box?"

Boatner, who never left town, said Jasper is sweet home for her and her
parents, Stella Mae Byrd and James Byrd Sr. Several years ago, Stella
Byrd, who declined to be interviewed for this article, erected a small
museum in the front of her brown wood-framed house on Broad Street, its
yard dotted with rosebushes.

Enclosed in a glass case, the museum, which is the size of a closet,
contains her son's images and gifts of artwork, plaques and letters from
strangers and dignitaries. She wrote a self-published memoir in 2002. She
wants the neighbors to be reminded of James Byrd Jr., every day.

Fading memories

In that same house, however, the family's patriarch, James Byrd Sr., can't
remember a thing.

A mainstay during the trials, he has suffered from Alzheimer's disease for
5 years. He passes the time sitting in a wheelchair in the garage out
front just a few yards away from the small glass museum.

"You can't interview him because he doesn't remember," Boatner said. "If
he could, I think he would love to remember, because he was our strength
when this was all going on."

But that was a long time ago, and many of Jasper's next generation, its
youth, don't know the legacy of James Byrd Jr.

Children playing games at the Boys & Girl's Clubs a stone's throw from
the county courthouse said they knew his name but weren't sure why.

"I heard he was a pretty good person, and he also lived in an apartment,"
said Dayzha Southwell, 11, who wore a T-shirt that read: The World Needs
More Love.

"And then he died."

(source for both: Houston Chronicle)