DNA 'links man' to Jasper murder

A FEW drops of blood were likely to become the centrepiece of a racially charged murder trial in Texas yesterday.

James Byrd Jr, 49, was dragged to death behind a pick-up truck in a brutal killing that shocked America. Blood was found on the shoes of John King, 24, one of three suspects on trial in Jasper, a small town of 8,000 people. DNA evidence to be presented yesterday at the county courthouse showed that it was Mr Byrd's blood, the prosecution was to argue. Saliva on cigarette butts and beer bottles also showed that Mr King was present at the scene of the crime, it was claimed.

Mr Byrd and the other suspects - Lawrence Brewer, 31, and Shawn Berry, 32 - had planned the killing in advance to spearhead the creation of a racist group, the prosecution claimed as it opened the trial on Tuesday. They cited conversations the suspects had in prison, tattoos, and items found near the body.

Sheriff Billy Rowles told the court: "I'm a brand-new sheriff. I didn't even know the definition of a hate crime, but I knew somebody had been murdered because he had been black. Once we saw the KKK [Ku-Klux-Klan]emblem on the cigarette lighter, that's when we started having some bad thoughts."

Mr King is being tried first, by a jury that includes one black man, and could face execution by lethal injection if convicted. He pleaded not guilty. His lawyer, Haden "Sonny" Cribbs, did not make an opening statement.

Keisha Adkins, 21, a former girlfriend of Mr King, told the court that she had been with the men before they left their apartment at about 1:30am on the night of the killing, supposedly to meet some girls. But the prosecution said that the men picked up Mr Byrd as he walked home from a party.

The prosecution told the court that Mr King had been trying to recruit for a new group he called the Texas Rebel Soldiers, an offshoot of the Confederate Knights of America, a group linked to the Ku-Klux-Klan. Papers around his apartment showed he planned to start the group on July 4: the killing was on July 7. Mr King "needed to do something dramatic that would attract media attention", said the prosecutor, James Gray.

If that was his intention thenhe has succeeded. The trial has brought reporters from across America. And the Ku-Klux-Klan has used the incident to hold rallies in Jasper. That has prompted counter-demonstrations by black groups such as the New Black Panthers. Judge Joe Bob Golden has banned protests within two blocks of the courtroom, but there are fears the trial will turn into something worse: the excuse for a fight.

Race-related killings are horrifyingly common in the US, but the Jasper case has hit the headlines more than most. It is partly the sheer violence of the killing. Mr Byrd was conscious when he was dragged to his death.

An examination of his body showed he had tried to keep his head off the road. But his head and arm were torn off. The other factor is the suspicion that this was part of a broader plot, linked to the far-right organisations that have deep roots in the east Texas area.