James Byrd was beaten senseless, chained to the bumper and dragged for two miles down a street in Jasper.
Shawn Berry, 23, Lawrence Brewer, 31, and John King, 23, each face a state murder charge, which carries the maximum penalty of life in prison.
In Texas the death penalty can only be applied if murder is combined with another crime, and it looked likely last night that the Texans would attach kidnapping, allowing them to press a charge of capital murder, which carries the death penalty.
The Rev Jesse Jackson, who met Mr Byrd's family after the murder, argued against the death penalty. "The fullest extent of the law must be enforced," he said. "Some people think that means capital punishment, some think it means life without parole. I happen to think the latter."
The black mayor of Jasper said the town should not be labelled racist. "We are very hurt by this crime, both sides, black and white," said Mayor RC Horn.
King's father apologised to Byrd's family. "It hurts me deeply to know that a boy I raised ... could find it in himself to take a life," he said in a hand-written note. "The deed cannot be undone but I hope we can all find it in our hearts to go forward in peace and with love for all."
The killing took a further bizarre twist last night as the Ku Klux Klan repudiated the killing. "There is no reason for the senseless tragedy in Jasper County. Neither the Klan or the Aryan Brotherhood have anything to gain by it," said Darrell Flinn, imperial wizard of the Knights of the White Kamelia, a Klan group based in Vidor, 60 miles south of Jasper. The comment was contained in an e-mail received by a local newspaper.
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