In Hate Crime, former CBS Radio reporter Joyce King meticulously maps out the whole gruesome tale, from that fateful night to the investigation to the media maelstrom that turned Jasper (pop. 8,000) into an international spectacle. King’s reporting is rich and varied, her language clear and succinct. As a Texan and a black woman, she is ambivalent about covering the Byrd case, which is so far removed from the segregated South but, viewed through the lense of a horrific murder, still so frightfully close.
As King tells it, the 49-year-old Byrd spent most of the evening of his murder at a party not far from home, leaving sometime around 1:45 a.m. in a drunken stupor. In a nearby apartment complex, John William King, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and Shawn Allen Berry were saddling up for an evening on the town. As Byrd stumbled home, the trio, who were driving along downing beer in Berry’s pick-up truck, spotted him and offered him a lift. Byrd jumped into the back of the pick-up and grabbed a beer. It was this offer, the author tells us, that set off John King, who was apparently incensed that Berry would stop for a black man. Soon after, a joy ride through the pitch black countryside turned into a fist fight, which turned into a dragging.
In her book, King carefully details the police investigation, the funeral, the media blitzkrieg, and her own road to Jasper. Initially, King says, she didn’t want to venture down it. “Hines swears he is not sending me because I am black,” King writes, referring to her boss, “but because he believes I will provide the edge’ he wants. But the last thing I want is to be in Jasper, to be thrust into the center of such a racially charged national story.” In order to understand what motivated the killers, she examines the suspects’ childhoods and their earlier prison stints, gleaning further insight from the witness testimony in the three trials.
King concludes that what drove the men to kill Byrd was a streak of prison-born racism that developed during their time behind bars (she implies that during this time, one of them, King, was sexually assaulted by a black man). For their crime, King and Brewer were sentenced to death, Berry to a life term.
King’s struggle to come to terms with the terrible crime prompts her to proffer some less-than-impressive solutions. Lighting on the penal system as the root of the problem, she suggests “diversity training” for guards, “dialogue” between prison officials and the public, and spending tax dollars to study racist prison gangs. Finally, she sides forcefully with those who advocate more hate-crime laws.
This last prescription is the most notable, since it is unclear how hate-crime laws would have prevented the murder of James Byrd. Would such laws eradicate existing hate? Deter future hate? In all likelihood, neither. To most supporters, hate-crime laws are significant not because of what they do but because of what they symbolize–namely, that society has zero tolerance for discrimination. Perhaps these statutes, as symbols of tolerance, could lay the groundwork for greater dialogue between races by convincing blacks that whites respect their freedom and dignity. Hate Crime only manages to deliver a definitive account of the tragedy that can ensue when they do not.