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Texas AG fights appeal of Byrd killer on death row

September 25, 2018

Prosecutors in the case of a man convicted in the dragging death of an African-American in Jasper 20 years ago say the U.S. Supreme Court should not hear his appeal just because he “disagrees with the result” of a lower court.

John William King, one of three Jasper men convicted of lynching James Byrd Jr. in 1998, appealed to the high court in June, saying that he was denied due process during the 1999 trial in which he was sentenced to death. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said he could appeal on only one of his claims, that his lawyers failed to effectively present his case of actual innocence.

King was one of three white men convicted of capital murder for chaining 49-year-old Byrd to the bumper of a pickup and dragging him three miles along Huff Creek Road in June 1998. Shawn Berry, 43, is serving a life sentence for the crime and Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed in 2011.

King’s attorney, Richard Ellis, argued that the appeals court “leapfrogged to a conclusion” and overstepped its authority by denying the right to appeal on other claims, which prevented them from effectively being heard in court.

Ellis said the court should have decided whether “a reasonable jurist” could believe the claims were debatable, and not weigh the actual merits of the claims.

“The 5th Circuit continues to step far beyond the required threshold, conducting a detailed analysis of the merits before concluding that an individual’s constitutional claim failed,” he said. “There is no doubt that Mr. King demonstrated the kind of ‘substantial showing of a denial of a constitutional right’ to satisfy the threshold inquiry that this Court’s precedent indicates is appropriate.”

In response filed Monday afternoon, Assistant Texas Attorney General Katherine Hayes said “reasonable jurists would not disagree” with the lower court’s decision to dispose of King’s ineffective counsel claims, which were denied by the 5th Circuit of Appeals in February.

King “fails to present any compelling reason to grant review” by the Supreme Court, Hayes wrote in opposition to King’s June 20 appeal.

“No conflict has been supplied, no important issue proposed, nor has a similar pending case been identified to justify this court’s discretionary review,” Hayes wrote. “ … this court’s limited resources would be better spent elsewhere.”

King, 43, previously alleged that he was denied his right to “effective assistance of counsel.” He said his lawyers failed to challenge the prosecution’s expert, Edward Gripon, who said King would be a future danger to others in prison, and that the defense’s own expert “testified that there is a real and viable potentiality for future dangerousness because of King’s personality and the crime.”

King also argued that the lawyers did not have King’s mental state evaluated, which could have opened the possibility of an insanity or diminished mental capacity defense.

“Given the circumstances of the crime, King’s mental state was obviously a critical issue at trial,” Ellis said, and there was “abundant evidence that would and should have raised this concern to trial counsel.”

Ellis asked the Supreme Court to send the case back to the appeals court “with further clear direction” on issuing certificates of appealability.

Haley.Bruyn@BeaumontEnterprise.com

Phoebe.Suy@BeaumontEnterprise.com

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