White supremacist John William King, whose gruesome murder of James Byrd Jr. changed how the U.S. prosecutes hate crimes, was put to death Wednesday in Texas. The execution by lethal injection was carried out 21 years after King, in his early twenties at the time, and two other white men killed 49-year-old Byrd, who is black, in Jasper, Texas. The murder shocked the nation and prompted a push to strengthen hate crime legislation. After a five-day trial in January 1999, a jury convicted King of capital murder in two-and-a-half hours. King was sentenced to death, the first instance that a white man had been given the death penalty for killing a black person in modern Texas history.
Despite the conviction, King sat on death row for two decades for the racially motivated murder. From the New York Times:
Early on a Sunday morning in 1998, Mr. King and two other white men attacked Mr. Byrd, a 49-year-old black man who had been offered a ride home in a sinister gesture of neighborliness. The men beat him, spray-painted his face, chained him to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him to his death on an isolated back road. The motive seemed shockingly clear-cut: Mr. King, who had come out of a stint in prison, was a committed white supremacist, his body a billboard of racist tattoos, including one depicting a black man hanged in a noose.
Byrd’s killing prompted Texas, in 2001, to pass the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, stiffening penalties for hate crimes. In 2009, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, making it easier for the federal government to prosecute hate crimes.