Divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denies stay of execution for John King

Yesterday, Monday, April 22, 2019, a divided Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) denied John William King’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and motion for a stay of execution based on a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.  The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected his application for clemency and a 120-day stay of execution.

On Wednesday, April 24, 2019, King, 44, is scheduled to be executed for his role in the racially-motivated dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in 1998. King, along with two other men, Shawn Berry and Lawrence Russell Brewer, was convicted of chaining Byrd by his ankles to the bumper of a pickup truck and fatally dragging him three miles on the outskirts of Jasper in East Texas. He was sentenced to death in 1999. Ten years later, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in response to Byrd’s murder.

Shawn Berry is serving a life sentence; Lawrence Brewer was executed in 2011. 

King’s attorneys asked the CCA to stay the execution in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McCoy v. Louisiana (May 2018).  In that case, the Justices ruled defendants have “the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experience-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty.” 

King’s filing also referenced the Texas case of Albert James Turner. In November 14, 2018, the CCA overturned Turner’s capital murder conviction on the basis of the McCoy ruling.  During Turner’s 2011 trial for the murders of his wife and mother-in-law in Fort Bend County two years prior, his attorneys told the jury he had committed the crime, despite Turner’s testimony that he was innocent.

According to the motion for a stay of execution, “Mr. King repeatedly expressed to defense counsel that he wanted to present his innocence claim at trial.”  It chronicles the following steps he took to try to present this claim:

When it appeared that his attorneys intended to concede Mr. King’s guilt anyways, Mr. King attempted to replace them. He also wrote multiple letters to the court complaining that his attorneys refused to present an innocence defense. When the court did not intervene, he wrote a letter to a Dallas newspaper outlining his claim of innocence. Yet despite Mr. King’s explicit and repeated requests, his counsel conceded his guilt to murder at trial.

On Monday, April 22, 2019, a divided Court denied King’s application for a writ of habeas corpus and motion for a stay of execution.  By a ruling of 5 to 4, the CCA dismissed the application as an abuse of the writ.  In separate concurring opinions, Judges Yeary and Newell questioned whether McCoy constituted new law that applied retroactively to cases that were already final when it was announced.

A dissenting opinion by Judge Keasler, which was joined by Judges Hervey, Richardson, and Walker, argued that the Court should take more time to consider King’s claim:

What I do know is this: 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 this Court’s recent earnest, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to implement new Supreme Court precedent in death-penalty cases, and especially 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.

You’ll find Monday’s orders and opinions from the CCA here.

For perspective on this notorious case and the impact it had on the families of those involved and the community of Jasper, read these nuanced pieces from the Beaumont Enterprise:

“Clues, but no firm answers in King’s path to infamy,” April 22, 2019

“Jasper awaits execution of James Byrd slayer,” April 22, 2019