A Death in Texas

A Death in Texas

A Story of Race, Murder, and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption

Excerpt from the book “A Death in Texas: A Story of Race,
Murder, and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption

Dina Temple-Raston

by Dina Temple-Raston
June/July 2002


"If I owned Texas and hell,
I’d rent out Texas and live in hell."

June 7,1998

DEATH HAS A way of making even slow people hurry. It scares them into seeing things the way they are, instead of the way they wish them to be. Even small deaths people don’t expect to notice, or welcome deaths, which end hard-luck lives or long, painful illnesses, sweep mourners backward through rooms they have been avoiding for years. So when the black community in Jasper, Texas, awoke one Sunday morning to hear one of its own had been killed in some awful way on Huff Creek Road, the phones began to ring. Ladies who had come to church early, ahead of the Sunday services, abandoned the hymnals in messy stacks and began counting noses. They called relatives, and friends, and friends of friends to see if their men were home, safe, or whether it might be one of their kin dumped on the side of an old logging road.

It was a little after 9 A.M. when Sheriff Billy Rowles received the call from the dispatcher about the body. His first thought was a routine hit-and-run — a commonplace accident on the unlit roads on the outskirts of town. Deputy Joe Sterling, a baby-faced officer, had come on the line a little breathless.

"It’s a bad one, Sheriff," he said over the crackle.

Rowles held the radio closer to his ear as his truck roared up Highway 190 toward Houston. He had a golf tournament to go to, Police Olympics, and, as a competitive man, he was determined to play and intended to win.

Yet something about Sterling’s voice bothered Rowles.

"Joe, should I come down there? I’m on my way to Houston now. Shall I come down there?" Rowles said. He was already eyeing the exits and crossovers looking for an opportunity to turn the truck around.

"No, no, don’t do that, Sheriff, we’ve got it under control," Sterling said, steadying his voice. "We’ll be fine. Curtis just rolled up. I’ll let you know if we come up with something."

Rowles had a feeling he shouldn’t wait. Moments later, he had swung his truck around and was headed back to town.

Back on Huff Creek Road, Curtis Frame, Jasper’s best investigator, was just stepping out of his car. He’d been to more evidence schools than the rest of the police department combined and wasn’t shy about letting people know it. He was about six feet tall, burly, and bald. (If he was going to be bald, he had decided, he would do so emphatically. He shaved his head completely.) He smoked cigarettes nonstop, fanning away the smoke self-consciously as he exhaled, sensitive to the fact that even in Texas nonsmokers out-numbered smokers. His leather belt and holster creaking, hardware jangling, Frame walked over to the body. All the equipment on his belt forced his arms out from his sides. Sterling fell into step with a similar gait.

"Sweet Jesus, there’s nothing left," Frame said to the younger officer as they looked at the torso. The knees and genitalia had been ground off. The head and right arm were missing. The little that was left of the body lay near the gate of one of Jasper’s oldest black cemeteries, one of those neighborhood resting places that had come to dot the East Texas landscape. Slave owners and, later, company executives had donated these little patches of land to the communities so workers would have somewhere to bury their dead. Some of the graves had headstones; most did not. Those who had passed were memorialized instead by spirit markers and makeshift crosses in which love was meant to make amends for the inability to pay for a more proper burial. Sterling took in the scene around him and then followed Frame with his eyes, watching him fish a box of rubber gloves out of his squad car. The investigation, Sterling thought, had officially begun.

Huff Creek Road was usually deserted, but for Sundays. That was when a parade of the faithful, dressed in their churchgoing finery, made their way to the white clapboard refuge of Rose Bloom Baptist Church. During those Sunday mornings there wasn’t much conversation, just the sound of a small army of feet crunching across the tall dry grasses in the meadow — a march to one of the few places where unlettered people could find solace from the poverty all around them. That’s why, even before the caravan of police cruisers and television station vans turned Huff Creek Road into a drag strip of shiny cars, a crowd of simple country people had already started to gather. They emerged from small houses in the woods in various states of dress — the women in flowered smocks, the men in sleeveless undershirts and dingy button-downs. They came out just to see who it was, or even what it was, laid out in front of the unmarked graves of the cemetery. The event had shattered a quiet Sunday routine. Clothes were half pressed, hair half plaited, children half washed.

The bystanders were a rainbow of the Huff Creek community: from yellow-skinned blacks with freckles to those who were as dark as coal. This had been the black part of town for as long as anyone could remember. It was here in 1867 that great-grandparents had first heard — more than two years after the end of the Civil War — that the Union had won and they were free. The delayed dispatch, made by a Union major general on June 19, 1865, was known forever after in Texas as "Juneteenth." Some people in the black community said the tardy announcement was the first of many historic delays in Jasper. It began with the Civil War, continued through the heady days of integration, and could be seen today in the struggle for real equality among the races. Jasper, they said, had always been a place where things seemed to happen long after their appointed time.

The roadside crowd of stout women and broad-shouldered men shaped by the labor of felling trees spoke in quiet voices. Why had it happened here? Why was the body in front of the cemetery? If this accident (or was it a murder? — no one was willing to venture a guess) had occurred on Farm-to-Market Road 1408, or on one of the dusty tram roads that shot off into the pines, no one would have discovered the body for weeks, maybe months. Instead, here it lay, as if it had just decided to pick itself up out of one of the unmarked graves in the cemetery and settle into a new resting spot on the pavement outside. The appearance of inaction from the group of onlookers, their gaping stares from the body to the graveyard to the squad cars and back again, masked the drama of their thoughts. Was someone trying to send Jasper a message? And if so, what was it?

JUST FIVE HOURS earlier, James Byrd Jr., had stepped out into the steamy East Texas air to walk down Martin Luther King Boulevard toward home. The evening had begun the way most evenings started for Byrd: he had been sitting with friends on a porch drinking Busch beer enjoying a quiet summer night.

"You watch. James Byrd, he’s going out in style," Byrd said, leaning back in his chair, a little tipsy. "The name James Byrd is going to be on everybody’s lips. James Byrd."

"You gonna win the lottery? Because that’s the only way anyone is going to remember you," said James Brown, one of Byrd’s best friends. "If you’re going to win the lottery, you can buy me a car. You gonna buy me a car?"

Byrd laughed, sang to himself a little, and winked at Brown. "You listen to what I’m saying. When I go, everyone is going to be calling me Mr. Byrd. Not Byrd-man or Toe or James. They’ll be using Mister."

"Then you better be buying up those lottery tickets," Brown said, handing his friend another bottle. "Because that’s the only way you’ll be making a name for yourself."

Things might have been different if James Byrd had taken the ride Brown offered him later that night. Byrd had decided instead to have just a couple more drinks before walking home from Willie Mays’s party. Brown and Byrd had been there together, singing, playing music, having a good time. Byrd didn’t want to leave. He was having fun. He was always trying to have a good time.

About the Book

A Death in Texas: A Story of Race, Murder, and a Small Town’s Struggle for Redemption
by Dina Temple-Raston

A vivid account of how a small Texas town faced up to its racist past in the wake of the brutal murder of James Byrd Jr.

Before 1998 few Americans had ever heard of Jasper, Texas. That all changed on June 7, 1998, when a trio of young white men chained a forty-nine-year-old black man named James Byrd Jr. to the bumper of a truck and dragged him three miles down a country road. In the hours after Byrd’s body was found in pieces on Huff Creek Road, Jasper’s white community tried to believe that one of their own had not committed the crime. That hope was shattered when the trail of blood and evidence led directly to two local men, Bill King and Shawn Berry, and King’s former jail house companion Russell Brewer. Within twenty-four hours, Sheriff Billy Rowles had gotten a confession and the trio was charged with capital murder.

From the initial investigation through the trials and their aftermath, A Death in Texas follows the turns of events through the eyes of Billy Rowles — an enlightened lawman determined to take lessons from the tragedy — and other townspeople trying to come to grips with the killing. Rowles kept local emotions in check as an onslaught of outsiders intent on sowing division — from the national media to hooded Klansmen and gun-toting Black Panthers — descended on this small lumber town in the Piney Woods of East Texas. And when the trials began, Rowles stood watch over Jasper as prosecutors painted a chilling picture of the crime, reporters sought concrete explanations for evil, and jurors — townspeople who knew the defendants — struggled with convicting three young men of murder and possibly sentencing them to death.

Drawing on extensive interviews with key players, journalist Dina Temple-Raston brings to life a cast of remarkable characters: the unrepentant baby-faced killer, Bill King; Jasper’s white patriarch and former Jack Ruby defense attorney, Joe Tonahill; the hard-drinking James Byrd; the determined district attorney, Guy James Gray; and Sheriff Billy Rowles, who held the town together.

An extraordinary feat of reporting and narrative, Temple-Raston’s A Death in Texas is not only the authoritative account of an infamous killing, but a provocative, deeply affecting story of race in America.

Dina Temple-Raston
spent her early journalism career as a foreign correspondent in China and Hong Kong and was a longtime White House reporter for Bloomberg Business News. This is her first book. She lives in New York City.

"With its first-class reporting of what is undeniably a first-class — if appalling — American story, A Death in Texas is likely to be a classic, unforgettably chilling and precise. This is a book that leaves fingerprints on the mind."
–Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map that Changed the World

"This book is not just the story of a tragic, senseless murder; it is the story of a town and a state forced to examine racial prejudice, statutes, and shame. It is superbly crafted."
–Ann Richards, former governor of Texas

"The good, the bad, and the indifferent, all frozen in a historic moment, make A Death in Texas the next In Cold Blood. A powerful, well-told story."
–Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center

"A . . . powerful chronicle of a hate crime . . . and the soul-searching that resulted for the residents of Jasper, Texas . . . Not just a painstaking anatomy of a murder, but of the intractable difficulties in resolving America’s ongoing racial dilemma."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Copyright © 2001 Dina Temple-Raston, reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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