From the start of this project I have found the discrepancy between the savage murder of James Byrd and the demeanor of its perpetrator, Bill King, deeply troubling. Jasper County sheriff Billy Rowles once told me that following his arrest on June 7, 1998, Bill King was "a perfect gentleman." In the three years that I have known King, spending many hours visiting him on Texas's death row and via an extended correspondence, there has been little in our interactions to dispute the sheriff's characterization. King has consistently been a man of his word, sending me requested documents and responding to specific inquiries. King did once accuse me of being naive in my presumed acceptance of the state's view of him, and he once said that he doubted that I had the fortitude to tell the world the "truth" about his situation and to go against the grain of conventional thought and safe prescriptions in order to proclaim his innocence. But these were relatively measured confrontations, given that the stakes for King are so high.
It is difficult to reconcile the charming, amiable Bill King with a crime propelled by such raw sadism. The incongruity is disturbing, even haunting. When I've attempted to describe this tension to others, the typical response has been to simply label King as "psychopathic" or "sociopathic," diagnostic terms commonly invoked to describe individuals with a history of antisocial behavior who are capable of charm but who are incapable of genuine care and concern for others. Such individuals are prone, instead, toward manipulating other people, coercing them in overt and subtle ways to extract what they want from them, but otherwise are devoid of feeling for others. To be sure, I did occasionally recognize King's attempts to manipulate me. For example, though it had been clear from the outset that ours was not a professional relationship, King attempted to manipulate me—by threatening to remove me from his visitor list—into providing psychological testing that could conceivably be used in his appeals process. When I refused, however, he did not terminate our visits. King's friends and family have also provided many illustrations of his capacity for manipulation. Yet I remain convinced that King is a man capable of caring for others, such as his son, to whom he is deeply attached, and his father. I have also witnessed in King a capacity for an unusual degree of loyalty toward specific individuals, including Russell Brewer, his comrade in arms, a quality that does not readily fit the stereotype of the psychopathic personality. Bill King, in other words, is not easily reducible to handy psychiatric formulations.
Something that has been particularly difficult for me in writing this book is the fact that over the years I have come to feel attached to King, notwithstanding what he has done. Finding the humanity in a man who has committed a barbarous act raises myriad questions, and for the longest time I think I found it difficult to admit the presence of these feelings, as if they might somehow suggest tolerance or acceptance for what happened to James Byrd. As a psychologist, I am accustomed to hearing about thoughts, feelings, and actions that the world might find morally reprehensible but in relation to which I am entrusted to adopt a less judgmental stance in order to further another's self-understanding. But this situation seems different, both because I have not been in the role of psychologist in my dealings with King and because of the nature of his crime.
Without removing the burden of responsibility that King bears for his actions and for the manner in which his life has unfolded, I believe that King's failures, in the end, are our collective failures. Bill King is now locked up in a little cubicle with its lone shaft of light, safely contained. To many, the fact that he is in line to be executed is reassuring. However, his sins cannot be contained within the walls of death row. Instead, they seep out and rejoin the great chaos of the human condition, finding new forms, new identities, new victims, and new reprisals. The forces that may have worked to create Bill King's life will continue to exist among us and will continue to pose a challenge to society. We may be able to extinguish the life, but we can never erase the fact that Bill King is, ultimately, one of us.
The first time I met Bill King, I was struck by his size; at five foot nine he appeared incongruously small in relation to the enormity of the crime for which he was convicted. On February 25, 1999, a Jasper, Texas, jury sentenced John William King to die by lethal injection for his role in the killing of James Byrd Jr., a black man who had been assaulted and dragged to death the previous summer while chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck. Byrd’s torn and dismembered remains had been dumped unceremoniously in front of a rural African American church. Since the slaying occurred after midnight on a Saturday night, the presumed intent was that horrified worshipers would discover him on their way to services the next morning. Two other men were also subsequently convicted for having taken part in the sadistic murder, which many would later characterize as a modern-day lynching.
I felt fortunate to be visiting Bill King given that inmates are permitted to have only ten people on their visitation list (names may be added or deleted from the list every six months). King was escorted from his cell by two corrections officers, hands cuffed behind his back, to one of several three-foot-by-three-foot cells in the visitation area. Once safely locked inside the "box," as prisoners refer to these cells, King extended his hands through a slot in the door so that his handcuffs could be removed, freeing him to talk on the telephone that connected him to the other side of a window—to the outside world. All visits, including attorney and clergy meetings, take place under these circumstances, with prisoners and visitors separated by thick bulletproof glass.
King's prison-issue white jumpsuit was unbuttoned at the top, revealing a crew-neck T-shirt that had turned a dull gray from countless washings. "DR," for "death row," was stenciled in large block letters on the right pant leg and across the back of the jumpsuit. Most often, even in winter, King preferred short-sleeved jumpsuits so that he could sport the "full-sleeve" tattoos whose racist and satanic content had become infamous during his trial. A prison artist called "Dirtball," with whom King had previously been incarcerated, had rendered most of them. His tattoos start at the wrist line and extend all the way up each of his arms in an unbroken, seamless pattern of blue images (prison tattoo artists don't often have access to other colors). The only portion of his arms that have escaped Dirtball's artful eye is his right elbow, which King refers to as his "virgin patch."
Despite the tattoos, I found that there was something disarming about being in the presence of King, a man whom most of the world had come to view as a monster, the very embodiment of evil. His demeanor was not what I had expected from a man on death row, let alone from someone guilty of a barbarous crime that had drawn both national and international attention. He was baby-faced, and his expression readily conveyed geniality. There was actually something soft about him, a quality that might explain the steady flow of letters that he receives from female admirers from all over the country. King's manner was matter-of-fact; he was direct but not brusque. He was also a man of obvious intelligence. A high school dropout, King nevertheless has an impressive command of the English language, and he articulates his ideas with ease. I would later learn that he has the habit of searching the dictionary for unfamiliar words that he finds interesting and then incorporating them into conversation and correspondence, a strategy for improving his vocabulary that he learned from his tenth-grade English teacher.
King was twenty-five years old at the time of that first meeting, in August 2000, and his short brown hair was thinning prematurely. He told me that he preferred to cut his own hair with a razor in his cell rather than going to the prison barbers, whom he accused of not being particularly fastidious about disinfecting their barbering tools. He also described his "house"—as prisoners refer to their cells—as impeccably clean and organized, with his correspondence arranged according to source or subject matter and filed chronologically. King liked to make his bed with smart forty-five-degree folds, military style, as he learned to do at the age of seventeen, when he was first sent away to "boot camp" for participating in a burglary. This individual, now so notorious for having committed such a brutal crime, has a penchant for orderliness.
The Polunsky Unit, formerly named the Terrell Unit, houses the male prisoners on Texas's death row. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice prefers to be discreet about the prison; about a mile west of Livingston, on U.S. Highway 190, a modest green sign with white lettering simply announces, "TDCJ Polunsky Unit," with an arrow pointing left. It is the only indication that suggests the presence of the prison, and the sign's understated character might easily lead one to think that the Polunsky Unit is a facility for first-time offenders rather than the state's premier maximum-security prison. Death row inmates remain at the unit until the day of their execution, when they are transported in a three-vehicle caravan to Huntsville's Death House, some forty-five miles to the west.
A winding two-lane country road cuts through piney woods and thick underbrush—the typical terrain of East Texas—past weathered houses with sagging roofs and dilapidated trailer homes, until a final turn offers the first glimpse of the prison. From afar the Polunsky Unit does not evoke the kind of foreboding feelings that one's imagination might conjure when thinking about an institution that houses condemned men. By way of comparison, the Walls Unit in Huntsville, which includes the Death House (where Texas carries out the death penalty via lethal injection), is instantly disturbing, with its sheer 125-year-old blood-red brick walls dotted with guard towers. Shotgun-toting officers are visible as they walk the perimeter of the unit, atop the imposing parapet that encircles the prison. The gravity of what takes place within is immediately evoked.
The Polunsky Unit, on the other hand, is almost attractive at first glance. For one thing, it is relatively new; the first inmates arrived there in 1993, and it was not until 1998 that Texas moved its death row inmates out of Huntsville to this location. Most of its buildings are but two stories high, so the prison lies low on the horizon in an otherwise pastoral landscape cut out of the surrounding pine forest. The buildings are constructed of cement, reinforced by ribbons of blue-gray steel that form distinctive markings at intervals between the two floors. Two parallel twenty-foot-high chain-link fences surround the vast complex, each topped with concertina wire. In the morning, the sun glistening off the wire creates a bright sliver of light that runs across the very heart of the prison, its sparkle almost adorning the buildings, as if they were whimsically wrapped packages. The entire complex has a strangely contemporary character, as if designed for a high-tech industrial park. It is only as one drives closer to the prison, and the features of the various compounds become evident, that the illusion of smart aesthetics dissolves into the reality of razor-sharp wire and four strategically placed guard towers.
These prisoners on death row are modern-day untouchables; regulations prohibit them from having direct physical contact with loved ones, not even on the eve of their executions. Those who are in good standing are allowed one two-hour visit per week, not counting attorneys and clergy—although the reality is that few have friends or relatives who make the trip to Livingston with any regularity.
Bill King smiled comfortably as we talked, snacking on a sandwich, soda, and candy bar that I had purchased for him. Behind him, through the metal latticework of the door to the "box" and across a hallway where corrections officers were escorting prisoners to and from their visits, I could see another set of windows, and through them a green field of grass. Farther still, I could see the walls of the death row compound. The intense sunlight of a Texas summer morning poured in through those farthest windows, backlighting Bill King as he sat there. It was as if King were framed by glass, and I had the unsettling sensation of looking into a diorama.
Nothing about Bill King's demeanor suggested that he was capable of the murder of James Byrd on a dark and lonely East Texas summer night. Even in a place like the Polunsky Unit, there are a small number of individuals whose crimes have been of such infamy that they hold a peculiar celebrity status—prisoners whose notoriety as evil sadists sets them apart even from the unusually cruel cohort of men whose crimes made them eligible for the death penalty. Certainly the character of James Byrd's murder qualified King for membership in this circle. It was an act so heinous, with the victim so brutally tortured, that it had shaken the emotional moorings of even veteran law enforcement officers. One could conjure scenarios that might render lethal acts comprehensible (say, moments of passion, or an attempt to cover one's tracks by leaving no witnesses), but the specific character of this murder defied such attempts at understanding or rationalization. There was nothing within the realm of logic to account for it. The atrocity had momentarily forced the nation to reflect on its comfortable and sleepy belief that race relations in America had somehow transcended their ugly past. It was as if the discovery of Byrd's mutilated body had momentarily thrust us back into some bygone era of Jim Crow racism, a time when Texas and the South were shaped by the agendas of the secretive network of the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers. It was this quality that made Byrd's murder feel uncanny, as though something familiar but ancient had been terribly mislocated into the present.
In addition to Bill King, Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry were later convicted of the murder in separate trials. King and Brewer had been in prison together in the past, and they were members of the same white supremacist gang, a small group calling itself the Confederate Knights of America, which was unknown even to most prison gang experts. Like King, Brewer also received the death penalty. Berry received a life sentence, spared the ultimate penalty largely because several African Americans testified that they did not believe him to be a racist and because he had no known white supremacist affiliations. Of the three men, Bill King was considered by most knowledgeable observers to have been the ringleader. They thought this because he was bright and had always exhibited a forceful personality, even an element of charisma. And they thought this because of his white supremacist ties. Nevertheless, King continued to profess his innocence, which is not surprising, for he was still appealing his conviction. However, by most accounts King appeared to be on what is termed a "fast track," having exhausted his state appeals in record time. Now, languishing on death row, he was awaiting the outcome of his federal appeals, the last steps before a Jasper judge would set his execution date.
A Dallas socialite has taken up King's cause, underwriting the services of a California attorney specializing in death penalty cases as well as an investigator who has scoured the evidence and interviewed everyone who would agree to meet with her. King's attorney has submitted an unusually lengthy and detailed federal habeas corpus brief, raising King's hopes of a possible retrial, but few outside of King's inner circle of family and friends believe that those efforts will spare King's life. In fact, Bill King's own views on the matter fluctuate significantly. At times he appears to feel hopeful and confident that his conviction will be overturned or, at the least, commuted to a life sentence; at other times he seems certain that his cause is hopeless.
The man believed by most to have been the central figure in the murder of James Byrd has done all he can to shore up his legal standing. Now there is little left for him to do but to spend his time reading and corresponding, waiting for the federal courts to determine his fate. I suspect that this situation, and the sheer boredom that must plague him, played some part in his decision to talk with me.
When I met Ronald King, Bill's father, he was a brokenhearted man. The elder King is serving his own death sentence, dying from emphysema—a condition that, since his son's trial, has required that he be continuously tethered to an oxygen tank. Ronald King was living next to his daughter's house in Jasper, in a shed that is not much larger than the cell occupied by his son; it is a hovel, with no running water, no insulation, and only a bucket to serve him should he need to use the bathroom overnight. "Not fit for a dog" was the way one friend described it, and I couldn't help but concur when Ronald finally permitted me to see it.
I had known Ronald for six months or so when he asked me if I would be willing to meet with Bill. I asked him at the time what it was that he hoped might come from such a meeting, and his reply came without a moment's hesitation: "Understanding," he said in a firm but quiet voice laden with the nasality of a heavy Mississippi-Texas patois. He had looked at me with sad, pale blue eyes, drawing oxygen through the plastic tubes clipped to his nostrils. As always, he was wearing a navy-blue jumpsuit, his gray hair thinning severely at the temples and his face weathered, cracked, and stained with age spots. I assume that it was my background as a psychologist that made Ronald hope that I might help him come to some greater understanding of his son, or perhaps he hoped that his son might come to some greater understanding of himself, though Ronald never elaborated. I was intrigued with the idea of talking to Bill King for other, albeit similar, reasons. I hoped that I might come to some understanding of what would render a man capable of committing such an unspeakable crime.
Accepting Ronald King's invitation, I was not sure what I would find when I looked into the eyes of a man whom most of the world regards as a monster. A few months later, when I went to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston for the first time, I was convinced of King's guilt and comfortable with the state's decision to end his life. I have since spent in the neighborhood of twenty hours talking face to face with Bill King while also maintaining an extensive, three-year correspondence with him. I have often left the Polunsky Unit emotionally exhausted and physically depleted, at times uncertain of the true facts behind the murder of James Byrd or the motives that played a role in it. King's personality—intense, persuasive, and profoundly engaging—played no small part in precipitating such states.
During one of my early death row visits King volunteered that The Silence of the Lambs, a novel by Thomas Harris, was one of his favorite books. I dutifully went home and read it. The book's plot revolves around the psychology of Hannibal Lecter, a primitive, monstrous creature (he is a serial killer who has cannibalized his victims) whose collaboration the FBI desperately seeks to enlist in order to solve the riddle of another serial killer's identity. As was true of King, Lecter is confined under the highest security. It was evident that King identified with Lecter, the novel's evil but ultimately human protagonist; that placed me in the role of Clarice Starling, the FBI agent sent to obtain Lecter's insights and cooperation.
One interchange between Lecter and Starling, in particular, stood out when I read the novel and seemed to signal Bill King's possible motives for meeting with me. Starling has visited Lecter for the first time and asks him to fill out a personality inventory, which Lecter mockingly refuses ("Do you think you can dissect me with this blunt little tool?"). Starling continues to press him, noting that he can shed light on the motives of other serial killers. When Lecter asks her what possible reason he would have for complying with such an endeavor, Starling replies, "Curiosity... About why you're here. About what happened to you."
Perhaps, I thought, King, too, like his father, and like me, wanted understanding. But it was impossible to miss a different implication to which the novel lent itself, given that the story leans heavily on the tensions created by the possibility that Lecter will somehow manage to seduce and take control of the FBI agent. Lecter is already infamous for his hypnotic powers of persuasion. King, too, I would soon learn, possessed a powerful capacity to sway others, to bring them into his orbit, to alter their sense of what was real.
And so I found that "understanding" was hard to come by. It took many months for me to decide that I knew King well enough to begin to imagine what might have motivated him. I learned a lot about King by visiting him. At the same time, his personality was so mesmerizing and his interest in denying his guilt was so strong that it was often necessary to spend time away from him in order to learn more about him. The crime spoke volumes, of course, and from the law enforcement officials who solved the murder I learned a great deal about the alleged perpetrators. Friends and family were able to provide crucial information about the years leading up to the murder. Finally, the trial itself served as a forum in which the character of Bill King was debated.
Nobody but the men who were present that night knows what really happened out on the lonely logging road where Byrd was dragged to his death. The three trials yield contradictory narratives. What we do know is that three men—Bill King, Russell Brewer, and Shawn Berry—left their apartment in Berry's pickup truck after midnight on June 7, 1998. After failing to find a party on a country road to which some girls had invited them, they headed back to town, where they encountered Byrd walking along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Shawn Berry, who was driving the truck, made the fateful decision to give Byrd a ride. Up to this point, all stories converge. After it, they teeter and veer under the press of self-serving accounts and evidence that is by turns feeble and tenuous or conclusive and incontrovertible.
What most impresses me about what I have discovered is that though his crime was monstrous, Bill King, the man, is much more human than we would care to think. When the global news media descended upon his hometown of Jasper in a relentless hunt for sensational material, they constructed a perhaps comforting, but ultimately obscuring, myth about King's monstrous nature. The truth is that King is all too close, in kind and in temperament, to me or to you, and that is why so many people, especially those who knew him, are confounded by what transpired on that summer night in 1998. On the whole, the forces that shaped him were not particularly vile, and the flaws in his character, while clearly evident, were not such as to signal what was to come. He was, in many ways, an average young man gone astray until the night that Byrd met his death. Countless others like Bill King have lived ordinary enough lives. Although notable, the things that may have caused him to commit such a murder do not point to a foregone conclusion. They do not add up to the torture and murder of a middle-aged, intoxicated black man whom the three men happened to come upon as he was walking home late one night on a dark Jasper street. While it may make us feel safer to imagine that Bill King is a creature quite alien to ourselves, the uncomfortable truth is that he is more like the rest of us than we would like to believe. The propensities that might explain this act remained mostly latent, lurking beneath the surface, unrecognized even by those who thought they knew him well. And that means that Byrd's murder, however extraordinary, is perhaps more proximate, more in the realm of the possible, than we may want to acknowledge.