HOUSTON—Beneath the guard towers and behind the razor wire of a Texas prison, Lawrence Brewer lifts his arm to display his racist tattoos.
“Like a cross burning and an intertwined KKK,” he explains, showing off the images cut into his flesh that turned his body into a billboard for hate.
His worldview of racial relations came from an earlier stint in prison.
“Watching the blacks and the Mexicans and other races literally beat people near death. So I came out after four years of that, with that mentality,” he said.
What he did after he came out of prison made him one of the nation’s most notorious killers. And on Wednesday night, he’s scheduled to die.
Along a lonely country road in East Texas, something horrible happened. And yet, the man who’s facing execution for the crime still says he didn’t commit murder, and that he was just going along with friends for a ride. He said that he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“As far as any regrets, no, I have no regrets,” Brewer says. “No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”
The savage killing of James Byrd Jr shook the conscience of the nation, reviving America’s nightmarish legacy of lynching and racially motivated violence. One hot night in June 1998, a trio of young men driving along a country road near Jasper offered Byrd a ride. Instead, they beat him, chained his ankles to the back of their pick-up truck and dragged him for more than two miles.
Byrd tried to prop himself up by his elbows, but they were sheared to the bone. As the driver swerved from side to side to bounce Byrd across the road, the asphalt tore away parts of his body. His agony ended when he slammed into a culvert and he was beheaded.
His killers left what was left of his torso alongside the road near a cemetery. Then they drove home and went to bed.
Deputies quickly arrested Brewer, John William King and Shawn Berry and charged them with capital murder. And the quiet town of Jasper suddenly was besieged by everyone from FBI agents to news reporters to race-baiting protesters.
All three of the killers were convicted in separate trials. King, a belligerent ex-con who wrote rambling essays about inciting racial warfare, was considered the leader of the murderous pack; he was sentenced to die. So was Brewer, another ex-con who covered his body with ghastly, racist tattoos. Berry, whom even prosecutors admitted was not a racist, escaped the executioner’s needle and was sentenced to life in prison.
Now, Brewer becomes the first to face execution on Wednesday evening. He still asserts his innocence, repeating his story that he looked out of the pick-up truck’s back window and watched Berry cut Byrd’s throat.
“That’s all I could see, whenever I looked out the sliding glass window in the truck, was Sean bending over at a pair of ankles,” he said.
But his alibi falls apart when compared to the physical evidence, according to Billy Rowles, the retired sheriff who investigated the murder.
“There was absolutely no throat cut,” Rowles said. “Wasn’t even scratches on the throat where a knife had done it.”
Oddly enough, as his hours on death row tick to a close, Brewer says he supports the death penalty. Even though he asserts his innocence, he claims he’s ready for his case to finally come to a close.
“Some days I’m wishing for a date to come and some days I’m not wishing for a date,” he says. “So now that it’s here, I’m willing to accept it, you know. That’s my punishment.”
Byrd’s sister is willing to accept it, too. Betty Boatner speaks with a voice bathed in peace and contentment. Her mother has died, her father has Alzheimer’s disease, but she still talks about her family’s blessings. And she bears no malice toward Brewer.
“If I saw him face to face, I’d tell him I forgive him for what he did,” Boatner said. “Otherwise I’d be like him. I have already forgiven him.”
Still, the sheriff who led the investigation into the murder and helped keep the peace in his southeast Texas town can’t help but wonder about Brewer’s state of mind on death row.
“In all the time he sat in that cement cage, that he’s been in there, in all the time that he’s had to think. I just cannot believe there’s not some kind of remorse,” Rowles says.