June 15, 2001 (JASPER, Texas) – The death of James Byrd Jr. was the kind of crime that is every police department’s nightmare – a vicious racially motivated killing that attracted the national and international news media, federal and state law enforcement officials and groups ranging from the New Black Panther Party to the Ku Klux Klan.
“In that situation you have to put pride and pats on the back aside, and you get the job done,” said Police Chief Stanley Christopher.
The 30-odd officers in the Jasper City Police Department and the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office got the job done when Byrd’s dismembered body was found in June 1998. The African-American man had been dragged behind a truck for three miles, a crime that raised memories of the lynching era.
Three suspects were in custody within 24 hours. John William "Bill" King, 24, Shawn Berry, 24, and Lawrence Brewer, 31, were convicted in three separate trials.
Jasper with fewer than 9,000 residents in the pinewoods of East Texas is the largest city within 60 miles. The city has a bi-weekly newspaper and a couple of radio stations. Before Byrd was dragged to death behind a truck on a country road in June 1998, residents knew Dan Rather and Jesse Jackson as figures on the national television news.
According to Christopher, Jasper police officers and the news media came together with preconceived ideas.
“They came in thinking that they were going to find a red-ecked potbellied police department who didn’t know their a-- from a hole in the ground,” he said. “The police thought the media would be running around sticking microphones in people’s faces. We were both somewhat surprised.”
Officials with the police department, the district attorney’s office and other local agencies, decided that cooperation was the best policy, giving reporters all the information they were legally entitled to as soon as it was available. Christopher said that in return reporters and camera crews worked with law enforcement, not revealing information critical to the investigation prematurely.
. Reporters also discovered that Jasper did not fit their preconceived ideas of a small southern town. About 40 percent of the area’s residents are black, as are many of the top officials in the city. In an interview with US News & World Report four months after the killing, Walter Diggles, head of the regional Council of Governments, said he advised Jesse Jackson to compliment the police, sheriff’s department and district attorney for their “swift action” – advice Jackson took.
The knowledge the police and sheriff’s deputies had of their area speeded the investigation.
“The evening that the body was found, the sheriff’s department and the police department had a meeting,” Christopher said. “Every bit of evidence that they had was presented in this meeting. As the investigators and the detectives started laying out what was found one officer or another would start saying ‘I’ve seen this or I’ve seen that.,’” One officer knew that Shawn Berry had an old gray Ford truck, another that a man Berry had met in prison was staying with him and a third had seen Berry working on the damaged truck.
“Sharing this information and not trying to hold back and being the heroes or the saviors allowed all the officers who had just a little bit of information to put it together,” Christopher concluded. “And that’s how it was basically cleared.” The investigation took another four months with assistance from state police investigators and the FBI, Christopher said. Other agencies helped during Byrd’s funeral and at large demonstrations and the two trials held in Jasper. Once the television cameras moved out of Jasper, the KKK and Panthers also moved on.
But Jasper kept control of the investigation, Christopher said.
“It was ours, and we needed to be the ones to take care of the problems we have here.”