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Messages from a stern verdict

Outcome of a hate-crime trial in Texas brings reassurance about thejustice system, but such crimes persist across US.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 25, 1999



AUSTIN, TEXAS

From the beginning, the odious murder of a middle-age black man in Jasper, Texas, stirred America - and in many circles the subsequent quest for justice was seen as a test of the nation's tolerance of hate.

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Now, as a jury in rural east Texas ponders whether an avowed white supremacist should be executed for the lynch-style killing of James Byrd Jr., the case is serving both to reassure and to prod.

The reassurance comes in the swiftness of the guilty verdict - delivered by a mostly white jury after deliberating less than three hours. While many analysts say the strong evidence made the Byrd murder practically an open-and-shut case, it nonetheless stands in contrast to other high-profile, racially charged trials - especially those, such as the Rodney King beating case, in which failure to convict in state court prompted the federal government to intervene on civil rights grounds.

But even as citizens of Jasper and the civil rights community breathe a sigh of relief over Tuesday's verdict, there's recognition that much remains to be done to bridge the racial divide in America. Indeed, it was the brutality of the crime - tying a beaten Byrd to the back of a pickup truck with a logging chain and dragging him for three miles - that drew so much attention.

"It's waking people up to the fact that we have organized white supremacists who are willing to use violence to achieve their goals," says Floyd Cochran, a former member of the Aryan Nation white supremacist group, who now runs the antiracist Education and Vigilance Network in Moshannon, Pa.

To some, the murder last June signaled that racial tensions are far from resolved, and that they continue to have a strong hold over rural America, especially in the barely integrated towns of the South.

While the verdict "shows the outrage of the American people in cases of brutal hate crimes," it also "sends a loud signal for the need of increased hate-crime legislation and prevention," says Hilary Shelton, Washington spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Civil rights advocates say the murder and verdict have served a part in reawakening Jasper residents to the racial hatred that brews quietly in their community.

"The fact is that east Texas is one of those places where a legacy of 300 years of apartheid has left it's heavy mark," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate-crime watchdog group in Montgomery, Ala. "Jasper and east Texas have benefited from this case in an odd way. An example: It took the murder of James Byrd to bring down the fence that separated whites and blacks in Jasper's cemetery."

As for the guilty verdict itself, legal experts say the jury decision had been expected. The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming, and the defense spent less than an hour presenting its case. The defense lawyer even acknowledged that his client, John William King, was a racist.

But blood evidence and a jailhouse letter, written by Mr. King to two accused accomplices, may have sealed King's fate. "We have made history and will die proudly remembered," King wrote in a letter that included inside information about the Byrd case, along with Nazi symbols.

Legal experts say the real work of the case will now begin, as defense lawyers try to build up mitigating circumstances to spare their client from Texas' oft-used death penalty. This process could take as long as three weeks, much more than the five days of the trial itself.

If the defense's current strategy holds, attorneys are likely to argue that King's previous stint in a majority-black prison forced him to join a racist white group for protection. In his closing arguments, court-appointed defense attorney C. Haden "Sonny" Cribbs said that King suffered trauma while in prison. "I don't think there's any question this boy had something happen to him in the penitentiary," he said, foreshadowing what is expected to be a key point of his presentation during sentencing.

"There's still a very important phase left," says Lynn Blais, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "It's possible that a verdict can end in a life sentence if [King] puts on a credible case of mitigating circumstances."

To some law-enforcement officials, the Jasper case serves as a reminder that racial hate groups are alive and well.

"You have had a low-grade race war since the end of the Civil War," says Bill Hale of the Texas Commission on Human Rights, a state agency, adding that the nation has some 500 race hate groups and as many as 100,000 card-carrying hate-group members. "The tactics and strategies have changed to a guerrilla war," he says, "and I don't anticipate an end of it in the near future."

OTHERS note that to truly restore racial peace in the economically challenged communities of east Texas, where well-paying oil jobs are just a memory, civil rights groups need to do more than hold rallies and protests. They need to listen, and fight back for the hearts and minds of citizens, white and black.

"The history of the Klan [and other hate groups], it was tied to a populist message: 'Who are we going to blame for our misery?' " says Jim Harrington, head of the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin. "Hate-crimes legislation isn't going to solve this," he adds. "This is a hearts and minds thing. Unless we commit ourselves to grander community approach, we're not going to achieve anything, no matter how many trials we win."