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Seven Excused From Dragging Case

January 27, 1999

JASPER, Texas (AP) _ A prospective juror in the trial of a white man accused of dragging a black man to death was excused Tuesday after revealing a relative received letters from the defendant laced with racist remarks.

Donald Halmon, a middle-aged construction worker, was one of seven people released from jury service in the murder trial of John William King, the first of three white men to be tried in the June 7 slaying of James Byrd Jr.

King, Shawn Allen Berry and Lawrence Russell Brewer are accused of killing Byrd, 49, because he was black. The men allegedly beat him, chained him to a pickup truck and dragged him for 2 1/2 miles, tearing his right arm and head from his body.

Halmon told attorneys his step-granddaughter, Michelle Chapman, received letters from King that espoused anti-black views. Miss Chapman is one of 53 people subpoenaed as potential witnesses in the trial.

Miss Chapman is one of several girls King contacted by letter while he was imprisoned from 1995 to 1997 for violating probation in a 1992 burglary, authorities said.

The contents of the letters have not been disclosed, but authorities characterized them as being romantic in nature, a series of come-ons to girls King was acquainted with in Jasper before he was sent to prison. They contain details of his pro-Aryan, anti-black beliefs, authorities said.

A week after Byrd’s mangled body was found, several of the girls’ parents turned over the letters to investigators, District Attorney Guy James Gray said. The letters may be introduced as evidence in King’s trial.

Defense attorney Haden ``Sonny″ Cribbs had Halmon dismissed based on his vacillating opinion about whether he could keep his preconceived ideas about King’s guilt from influencing his verdict.

Seven of 10 potential jurors interviewed Tuesday were excused. Four were struck because they said they oppose the death penalty. King, 24, would face either life in prison or the death penalty if convicted.

Two white men and a black woman who works as a state corrections officer made the preliminary cut.

Lawyers had anticipated it would take at least two weeks to find a jury, but the speed and limited success of the interviews prompted both sides to speculate that 12 jurors and two alternates could not be found among the 122-person pool.

``Three out of 10 won’t get us there,″ District Attorney Guy James Gray said.

If a jury cannot be seated from the available pool, the judge may have to call in additional citizens for questioning.

King has pleaded innocent. In a letter released to The Dallas Morning News last fall, King claimed he was dropped at his home after Berry gave Byrd a ride. He insists Berry and Brewer killed Byrd over a soured drug deal.

Prosecutors said Byrd’s blood was found on the shoes of all three suspects and other personal items and DNA samples found at the scene implicate all three.

Prosecutors Tuesday issued a subpoena for Dallas Morning News reporter Lee Hancock, asking her to produce the letter from King.

``We are going to speak with our lawyers later this week and determine what action to take,″ said Gilbert Bailon, the paper’s executive editor. ``We understand they want her to authenticate letters she received from the defendant.″

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