Stigma lingers in town infamous for dragging death

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JASPER, Texas (AP) — The bloodstains are long gone. So is the red paint investigators sprayed along a nearly 3-mile (5-kilometer) stretch of bumpy asphalt on Huff Creek Road to mark the grisly final moments of James Byrd Jr.’s life.

What remains are the scars from the hate crime more than 13 years ago that shocked the nation and branded this Texas town near the Louisiana border with a racist stigma after a black man was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged to his death.

Lawrence Russell Brewer, 44, one of two purported white supremacists condemned for Byrd’s death, is set to be executed Wednesday for participating in fastening Byrd to the truck, pulling him along the road and dumping what was left of his shredded body outside a black church and cemetery.

Brewer’s scheduled execution puts the spotlight back on a town still trying to exorcise the perception of racism that’s resurfaced recently with an attempt to oust three black city council members who helped confirm a black man as police chief. But residents, city leaders and even researchers who have studied the infamous community say the dragging death has given Jasper an unfair reputation.

“The irony is how undeserved the label they got was,” said Cassy Burleson, a researcher at Baylor University who has been studying Jasper since the Byrd case. “Just looking at the facts, they were one of the most progressive communities in Texas.”

Jasper, a town of about 7,300, where whites comprise just under half the population, has no history of notable hate crimes before or since the dragging death that would be indicative of a racially insensitive town. Several blacks have served in prominent positions, including mayor, school board president and held school board seats.

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The rest of the country perceived the town quite differently, fed in part by television footage of the Ku Klux Klan rallying on the courthouse square and the Black Panthers driving around town, both groups trying to recruit members. Neither recruited well in Jasper because the town “did not encourage that presence, buy into it or feed it,” said Mia Moody, Burleson’s research partner.

Byrd’s brutal death put Jasper, a typical East Texas town with the obligatory Dairy Queen and Walmart and a handful of fast-food places some 60 miles from the nearest interstate highway, under a national spotlight.

“Everywhere you went, anywhere in the country, once people found out you were from Jasper, Texas, they wanted to ask you about it,” says Mike Lout, the mayor and owner of the town radio station. “Everybody first was shocked and appalled and not proud of it. They talked about it so much in the days past it, I think most people wanted to put it out of their minds.”

If Jasper was hoping to rehabilitate its sullied image, the squabble over the hiring of a black police chief in April won’t help. Several rejected applicants have sued, alleging reverse discrimination, and three of the four black council members who voted for the appointment are facing a recall election in November. Recall supporters say the chief was selected over more qualified applicants, including the former second-in-command who is white.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Billy Rowles, who was sheriff at the time of Byrd’s murder. “A lot of effort and hard work and soul-searching went into trying to live down the stereotype. It’s so easy to get back into that mode.”

Besides Brewer, who is scheduled for lethal injection Wednesday, John William King, 36, also was convicted of capital murder and sent to death row. His case remains under appeal. A third man, Shawn Berry, 36, received a life prison term.

Testimony showed the three offered the 49-year-old Byrd a ride in Berry’s pickup truck early on June 7, 1998. Byrd wound up bound by his ankles with a heavy logging chain attached to the bumper, bouncing from side to side as he desperately tried to limit his injuries by lifting himself. At a sharp left curve in the road, he whipsawed to the right and struck a concrete culvert.

A pathologist testified Byrd had been alive until there, where he was decapitated. An investigator later would write on the road in spray paint: “Head.”

Brewer told Beaumont television station KFDM from death row that he participated in the assault on Byrd but had “nothing to do with the killing as far as dragging him or driving the truck or anything.” He told the station his execution would be a “good out” and he’s “glad it’s about to come to an end.”

For Jasper, the stigma survives.

“That’s what they recognize,” said Sheriff Mitchel Newman, who recently was arranging a business trip through someone in Colorado who mentioned the case. “I’ll be glad when it’s over. It’s not fair. It makes us look like idiots.”

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.