Racist killer didn’t deserve the death penalty

Death Penalty

John William King, the 44-year-old despicable murderer of James Byrd, Jr., could have gotten a sentence of life in prison and lived miserably there for the rest of his life. Instead, Texas executed him.

In some ways, death is salvation for him. Imagine being relatively healthy with nothing to look forward to – just sitting in jail, surrounded by Black people your White supremacist self purports to hate. That might be torture worse than death.

Byrd was dragged behind a vehicle for almost three miles near Jasper, Texas in 1998. King and two other men (one whose death penalty sentence was carried out in 2011, another who was sentenced to life in prison) were found guilty one of the most horrific hate crimes in modern U.S. history.

No remorse

Byrd’s family was present at King’s execution. Byrd’s sister noted that the murderer, who maintained his innocence, showed no remorse when he was convicted and showed none when he was executed.  He never acknowledged or looked at Byrd’s family.

Does a man whose body sported disgusting tattoos, including, according to one news source, “one of a Black man with a noose around his neck hanging from a tree” deserve the death penalty?

I say no.  Keep that filth alive and keep him miserable.  His execution creates a martyr for White supremacists.  Had he lived, he would have evolved into pitiful irrelevance.

The death penalty has been abolished in 20 states with moratoriums on executions in other states, most recently California thanks to Governor Gavin New-some. It should be abolished nationally.

Hundreds executed

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, nearly 1,500 people had their death sentences carried out between 1976 and now. African-Americans are just 13 percent of the nation’s population, but we were more than a third of those executed after receiving a death sentence.

People who killed White people were far more likely to get the death penalty than people who kill Black people.  There are racial biases replete in the application of the death penalty, with numerous studies supporting the many ways the death penalty is unfairly awarded.

According to the Death Penalty Information, for example, Washington state jurors were “three times as likely to recommend a death sentence for a Black defendant than a White one.”  In Louisiana, someone who killed a White person was nearly twice as likely to get the death penalty as one who killed a Black person.

The death penalty is applied through a racial lens – based on the race of the criminal and the race of the victim. From that perspective, King committed a crime so egregious that jurors acted contrary to the statistics, voting to apply the death penalty to an avowed racist White man who participated in the brutal murder of a Black man.

I am frequently reminded of the 1920 Tulsa, Oklahoma lynching of Ray Belton, an 18-year-old White man who shot a taxi driver. Though Belton confessed to his crime and said it was “an accident,” he was denied the due process of a trial and conviction. After his lynching, a Black newspaper editor opined that if a White person could be lynched, so could a Black person.  

A year later, the attempted lynching of the Black shoeshine “boy” Dick Rowland because of the false accusation that he assaulted a White elevator operator, Sarah Page, was the spark that led economically envious Whites to destroy the Greenwood (“Black Wall Street”) section of Tulsa.

Inhumane punishment

If we could execute Byrd’s White murderer, we can execute a Black person accused of something, whether they did it or not.  Applying the death penalty erodes our humanity, whether the accused is guilty or not.

I respect the Byrd family and ache with them at the gruesome murder. But I would prefer a punishment for racist murderers that is both humane and inhumane.

We don’t execute them because we don’t stoop, as a society, to the level of committing a crime we abhor.  We ignore them and exacerbate their misery, reminding them that they have no hope of release.


Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available at www.juliannemalveaux.com.

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