Death by dragging trio go on trial

ON THE back of William King's head, just visible beneath his close- cropped hair, is a tattoo of a pentagram. The mark and its meaning will be at the centre of a highly charged United States murder trial, which opens today in the small Texas town of Jasper.

Mr King, with two other defendants, is charged with the murder of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death behind a car, with Mr King and others allegedly in it. Body parts were strewn along the quiet country road on the steamy night of 7 June last year.

It was a vile, grisly killing, but that was not the only reason it caught the public imagination. Mr King and his friends are alleged to have been linked to white supremacist gangs in prison and the killing may have been more than just an evil episode: it may have been the rallying cry for race war.

Mr King and one of the other defendants, Lawrence Brewer, shared a prison cell and were both members of a racist prison gang, the Confederate Knights of America, the prosecution will say. Mr King, while in jail, changed his religion from Baptist to Odinism, common among some of the far-right groups. He was tattooed with the pentagram and Ku-Klux-Klan (KKK) and Nazi symbols. He and Mr Brewer planned the killing as a warning to Jasper's black residents, and Mr King was trying to start a chapter of one of the far right groups, the court will be told.

According to the prosecution, Mr King, Mr Brewer and Shawn Berry set out that night to make a statement. The killing was not just a random, drunken event, but akin to the lynchings that plagued the US within living memory. One of the other tattoos on Mr King is the image of a black man hanging from a tree. The body was left by the town cemetery.

Think of Texas and you probably think of oil rigs or jangling spurs. But this part of east Texas, just west of the Red River valley, is wooded and studded with lakes and rivers, far from the big urban centres or the open plains. This is the poor, underdeveloped south. Parts have been fertile territory for the far right for years, and several KKK groups used the Byrd killing as the occasion for a rally in Jasper's pretty little courthouse square.

Now, they would not get near it. Such displays are banned within two blocks. There are metal detectors and surveillance cameras at the courthouse. The town has been once again submerged by national media, as it was last year.

Jasper itself was traumatised by the killing. Many residents - white residents - said it was not a racist town, that the mayor was black and there was no tension. Black residents disagreed. The cemetery itself was segregated, they said. Since then, Jasper has made itself a model for reconciliation, the cemetery is desegregated and this small town deep in the pines has been praised in newspaper editorials across the country.

Mr King has displayed erratic behaviour since his arrest, threatening his captors, saying he would commit suicide and sometimes refusing to turn up for hearings. "I don't know why you are eager to condemn me for this man's murder," he wrote in a letter to the local Jasper Newsboy. "I am simply a victim of a judicial conspiracy as well as the district attorney's personal animosity for a non-Christian ex-convict who is adorned with skin art mildly offensive to his and Jasperites' religious beliefs."

What remains is to try him. He is charged with capital murder: if found guilty, he and the others may be executed by lethal injection. It is only the second capital murder case in Jasper County in 50 years, and everyone in this small town knows everyone else.

His lawyers applied to take the case elsewhere, but that was turned down. The jury has been chosen, and it will not be all-white: there will be at least one black member. The judge, Joe Bob Golden, has won plaudits from all sides for his calm, relaxed handling of an incendiary case, as has the town sheriff, Billy Rowles.

However, after Mr Byrd's burial, his headstone was removed. Jasper has tried desperately hard to do the right thing, and there is enormous will in the town to survive this awful killing. But Mr Byrd is still dead; and there are still people in east Texas who want to use the case for their own racist motives.