July 3, 2002, 10:47PM

Byrd son fighting for life of killer

Four years after father’s dragging death, Ross Byrd speaks about his change of heart over executions

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

When Ross Byrd left the Jasper County trial of the man who masterminded his father’s 1998 dragging death, he told the press, “One down, two to go.”

Minutes earlier, John W. “Bill” King became the first of two white men sentenced to death for the racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man. A third man was sentenced to life in prison.

Throughout King’s trial, Byrd told reporters he wanted his father’s killers to receive the death penalty for the gruesome killing. His father was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death.

King’s execution date looms with his state appeals nearly exhausted, and Byrd is speaking out about the white supremacist’s fate.

But this time, he is fighting to save the life of the very man who took that right from his father.

On Wednesday, Byrd traveled to the state prison in Huntsville to lead a 24-hour fast and prayer vigil on King’s behalf. He was joined by dozens of supporters and anti-death penalty advocates that included Martin Luther King III, whose father was assassinated in 1968, longtime social activist %@!#$& Gregory and former Houston Mayor Pro Tem Jew Don Boney.

“When I heard King had exhausted his appeals, I began thinking, `How can this help me or solve my pain?’ and I realized it couldn’t,” Byrd said.

Jasper County District Attorney Guy James Gray said King has unsuccessfully used every state appeals option available.

Allen Richard Ellis, King’s appeals attorney, said he will file a federal court appeal in mid-August. He said that appeal could be King’s last chance unless the federal court allows him to open new appeals at the state level.

There is no hard and fast rule for setting an execution date after a final appeal is denied. Ellis said King still has enough appeal options left that discussing an execution date is premature.

King’s lawyer said he learned about the prayer vigil Wednesday afternoon.

“It’s a wonderful gesture,” Ellis said. “I think it’s a great example for all of us to live in a spirit of forgiveness instead of revenge.”

Although Byrd initially supported the death penalty in King’s case, he said his attitude began to change as the reality of his loss set in. Byrd said he now believes the death penalty is wrong in all cases and is hoping King’s sentence will be commuted to life in prison without parole.

“To want to see the men who killed my daddy die by the state is the same for me to go out and kill them myself,” Byrd said in a news conference before leaving for Huntsville.

The conference was held in the same community center where one of the state’s largest grass-roots, anti-death penalty movements began two decades ago. Shape Community Center was a meeting point for advocates of former death row inmate Clarence Brandley, who was released from prison when his sentence was overturned in 1989.

Byrd attributed his change on King’s sentence to religious conviction.

“It’s the big picture we’re trying to look at, and the big picture is God says, `Thou shall not kill,’ ” Byrd said.

Gregory stood beside Byrd wearing a sandwich board that bore the same Scriptural passage in bold letters. He said the message from Byrd and other activists gathered for the vigil was a simple belief that “any form of killing is wrong,” even if performed by the state.

King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Byrd’s stance on the execution of John King reflects the SCLC position that capital punishment violates basic human rights of all people.

“It’s not a black or white issue,” he said. “It’s a right or wrong issue.”

King invited children and volunteers gathered at Shape to join Byrd in praying for the convicted murderer during the vigil that runs through noon today.

Boney, who helped organize the vigil, said he did not know whether John King knew about Byrd’s actions. He said no effort had been made to have the two men meet. Boney also said no one in the group had officially contacted Gov. Rick Perry to ask for clemency, but he is hopeful the prayer vigil would attract the governor’s attention.

Ellis said he did not think his client was aware of the rally, but he said King would not be offended that a black man was praying for him. The lawyer said King’s racist beliefs were “grossly over-represented” in trial testimony.

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