JASPER, Texas, Feb. 23 -- A jury in Jasper, Texas has convicted John William King of capital murder in the racist slaying of James Byrd, Jr., a 49-year-old black man who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck. The jury deliberated less than three hours today before returning with the verdict against the 24-year-old ex-convict, one of three white men charged in the slaying of Byrd last June on a rural road outside Jasper. After State District Judge Joe Bob Golden read the verdict, a wave of applause erupted from the courtroom. The judge asked for silence and immediately conferred with attorneys about the next phase of the trial. Golden quickly started the punishment phase of the trial and prosecutors began presenting evidence that King should receive the death penalty. The trial was recessed about an hour later and will resume Wednesday. When the verdict was read, King sat stone-faced with no reaction. Byrd's relatives told reporters they were pleased with the outcome. His daughter, Rene Mullins, said the verdict was 'like a breath of fresh air. It brings some closure to my life. I've been living a nightmare for the past eight months.' Byrd's sister, Mary Verrette, said the verdict was fair. She said, 'It was not decided on emotion but on facts, and that's all we wanted.' Ronald King, the defendant's father, broke into tears when he heard the verdict in the courtroom. A statement written by King was later read to the news media by David Luther, a deacon at King's church.
Luther said, 'Mr. King is deeply saddened by the verdict handed down today and just as saddened for the James Byrd, Jr., family, as they have shouldered an even greater burden these last several months.' Luther said King reached out to the 'Jasper community, for them to continue to show the world by example that during these difficult times, good will overcome all evil with our trust in and with the help of God.' In Washington, President Clinton said he hopes the verdict will bring Byrd's family and friends some closure. Clinton said that as people expressed their grief and outrage over the Byrd's death, Americans crossed racial lines to show that 'an act of evil like this is not what our country is all about.' The jury of seven men and five women, which elected the only black member to be foreman, received the case at 11:20 a.m. CST after hearing about 40 minutes of closing arguments from attorneys. District Attorney Guy James Gray said the state proved that Byrd was kidnapped before he was killed, which is required under the Texas capital murder law in order to seek the death penalty. Gray reminded the jurors that the pathologist testified Byrd was alive when he was chained to the back of a pickup truck, and that he was killed when he smashed into a culvert after nearly three miles. In the defense closing arguments, attorney Brack Jones sidestepped the question of guilt, arguing that the state had not proved that a kidnapping occurred. He said there was no evidence linking the 24-foot chain to the case. Two other defendants in the case will be tried later. ---
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