Court upholds conviction, death sentence in James Byrd dragging death

John William King insists that his tattoos of racists symbols, including one of a black man hanging from a tree, don’t mean what they appear to mean.

A federal appeals court says they do and, taken in context with his other white supremacist statements, made it impossible for his attorneys to argue that King didn’t have racist intent when he killed a black man.

A three-judge panel from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans cited the tattoos and their meaning among the reasons for upholding the conviction and death sentence of the 43-year-old King in the dragging death of 49-year-old James Byrd in June 1998.

The 25-page decision, authored by Judge Carolyn Dineen King, dismissed all of John King’s arguments about the effectiveness of his attorneys at trial and for not doing more to downplay his ties to racists groups and statements.

In the appeal, John King criticized his attorneys for not pushing the theory that his tattoos were merely a way of adapting and surviving in prison, not signs of racial animus.

Judge King, joined by Judge Leslie Southwick and Judge Catharina Haynes, noted that King was part of a white supremacist prison gang and wrote about the desire to expand the gang and even drew pictures of racial lynching.

“The state’s case that King harbored violent and white supremacist views was multifaceted and ironclad,” Judge King wrote. “No matter how skillful they were, counsel could not make this evidence go away.”

Byrd died after being dragged behind a truck for three miles on an asphalt road near Jasper, Texas. Investigators said Byrd remained conscious throughout much of the incident and died when his body hit the edge of a culvert, decapitating him and severing his right arm.

One co-defendant, Lawrence Russell Brewer, was executed in Texas on September 21, 2011.

King remains on death row. A third co-defendant, Shawn Berry, was sentenced to life in prison.

Byrd’s death led to the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009.

Photo credit: AP Images