What happens to a town identified with one of the worst hate crimes in American history?
BEFORE JASPER BECAME A SYMBOL, when it was still an ordinary town, a wrought-iron fence stood in its cemetery, dividing the graves of blacks and whites. How residents viewed the fence depended on which side of it they would someday be buried on. “It was just a rickety old fence that was supposed to keep out chickens and hogs when this was open land,” said realtor John Matthews, whose grandfather was the mayor of Jasper in the twenties. “It’s common knowledge that it wasn’t put there to keep out black people.” But where whites saw a benign relic, blacks saw something else. Chickens and hogs hadn’t had the run of Jasper for a long time, and still the fence remained. Coils of baling wire held up its rusted bars and prevented its sagging rail from giving way. In one place, its wobbly posts were held together with a coat hanger—anything to keep the fence from falling down.
Not until three white men chained James Byrd Jr. to a pickup truck in 1998 and dragged him to his death in the woods outside town did people start to wonder aloud why there was an immutable order to things in Jasper; why blacks were laid to rest only on one side of the fence, on the slope of a hilltop reserved for whites. “The incident,” or “the tragedy,” as locals gingerly call Byrd’s murder, forced this town to undertake the sort of painful introspection that few communities ever experience. Over the past five years, its residents—both black and white—have attended prayer vigils and town meetings and church services together, and they have had candid conversations with one another about race. They have worked hard to show that they renounce the ugly legacy of what happened here. Still, the stain lingers. When they travel beyond the Piney Woods, they know better than to tell strangers where they live. “East Texas,” they offer, and if pressed further, “Near the Louisiana state line.” More than one resident made a point of telling me, with equal parts self-defensiveness and civic pride, “Jasper isn’t the evil town everyone thinks we are.”
For outsiders, Jasper serves as a convenient scapegoat, sparing us the trouble of examining our own prejudices. But this town of 8,247 people is fundamentally no different from any other city or town in America, where the bigotry of a cemetery fence could be interchanged for the racial divide of an avenue or a railroad line. Only Jasper has had to bear the burden of publicly accounting for its sins. If there is hope to be had for racial healing anywhere, it is in the social experiment that has taken place here, where blacks and whites have tried to overcome history and forge a new path.
Seven months after Byrd was murdered, in one of Jasper’s many acts of contrition, the fence that had stood in the town cemetery since 1836 was torn down. Among the clergy and residents who gathered there that day, there was singing and prayers and promises of change. But five years later, even though the old fence has been dismantled, pieces of it remain. Here and there, rods jut out of the ground at odd angles; they protrude from tree trunks and lean against ruined stumps. In some places, wrought-iron bars still stand moored to the ground, impossible to unearth without cutting the trees down. The fence has become tangled in the roots of the cemetery’s oldest pines.
“I GOT THE CALL EARLY that Sunday morning,” said Jasper County sheriff Billy Rowles, nursing a cup of coffee in his office this fall. “There was a body out on Huff Creek Road, and there were tire tracks all down the pavement. I remember thinking this was going to be the easiest hit-and-run we’d ever worked; we would just follow the skid marks all the way to the guy’s house. So I went out there and started following the trail. There were some dentures lying in the road, and farther down there were keys and some loose change. Well, I kept walking, and I got to looking closer at the skid marks, and I saw they weren’t tire tracks at all. It was a trail of dried blood. I followed it for almost three miles.”
Rowles had seen his share of gruesome crime scenes in his 27 years as a Texas state trooper, but nothing rivaled the sight of the body that had been dumped on Huff Creek Road. Later, investigators determined that the victim was James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old former vacuum-cleaner salesman and father of three children who had lived for years off disability checks. A hard drinker, Byrd was a familiar fixture around town, where he was often seen walking the streets or accepting rides. He had been beaten, sprayed in the face with black paint, and bound by his ankles with a logging chain. Evidence showed that he had been conscious for much of the dragging, having fought to keep his head above the pavement. His elbows, heels, and backside had been skinned to the bone. His knees and genitals were ground away. His head had been severed from his body when it hit a culvert, as had his right arm. Even though Byrd’s wallet was found at the crime scene, his body was so badly disfigured that positive identification had to be made through fingerprints. Even a hardened investigator like Rowles was stunned by what he saw. “I had dreams about him screaming,” the sheriff said. “I would hear the sound of his body dragging against the pavement.”
Jasper County had elected its share of sheriffs in years past who had subjected the black community to, at best, benign neglect, but Rowles was a new kind of lawman. At first glance, he looked to be of the old school; he was always dressed immaculately in a pressed shirt and a tie, starched blue jeans, a white Resistol, and ostrich-skin boots. And he did things the old-fashioned way, beginning with campaigning for sheriff on horseback. His home number was listed in the phone book, and most nights, worried parents and feuding spouses called on him for counsel. But while he was nostalgic for a traditional moral code, he did not embrace the small-mindedness of the past. He had forged strong ties with the black ministers in Jasper, and he was known for treating people fairly. Most important in the eyes of black community leaders, he did not let the Byrd case languish. “If a different sheriff had been in charge, we would’ve had an unsolved hit-and-run, and that would’ve been the end of it,” said Tommy Adams, of Huff Creek Community Church, echoing the opinion of many black residents in Jasper. “The FBI wouldn’t have been called in. No one would’ve been arrested.”
When Rowles left the crime scene, he immediately paid Byrd’s parents a visit. They prayed together, and when the sheriff stood to go, he vowed, “We won’t rest until we catch the men who did this to your son.” Less than 24 hours later, Rowles made good on his promise. Among the evidence he had seen on Huff Creek Road was a three-eighth-inch nut driver engraved with the name Berry. As Rowles and his team of investigators brainstormed about the few clues they had before them, a sheriff’s deputy remembered that Shawn Berry, the clean-cut manager of the local movie theater, owned the same kind of truck that an eyewitness had last seen Byrd riding in. Berry was brought in for questioning that night, as were the men he said he had spent the previous evening with: ex-con Bill King and his prison buddy Russell Brewer, who shared King’s views on white supremacy. Berry was the most jittery of the three young men, but it wasn’t until late into the night that Rowles and then-Jasper County district attorney Guy James Gray finally wore him down. As Rowles remembered it, “Guy James said, ‘Shawn, it’s three o’clock in the morning, so you know the sheriff and I aren’t down here for some Mickey Mouse kind of reason.’ Berry couldn’t even swallow. I said, ‘I know you’re scared to death. You should be, because we found blood on your truck. And I’m fixing to get the FBI involved. When they get here, one of you boys is going to get a deal. Who’s it going to be?'”
Berry asked to use the restroom, and when he returned, he started talking. “His very first words were, ‘They wanted to fuck with a nigger, and it got out of hand,'” Rowles recalled. Reluctantly, Berry sketched out the facts of a crime that would, within hours, make Jasper infamous. The trio had been drinking beer and cruising around town Saturday night, Berry said, when they spotted Byrd ambling home. They picked him up and drove him into the woods, where King and Brewer beat him until he stopped moving. Then King got behind the wheel, and with Berry and Brewer beside him, he tore down Huff Creek Road. Only when it was too late did Berry realize, he told investigators, that Byrd was being dragged to death behind them. “I had nothing to do with it whatsoever,” he swore. Rowles knew the confession was too self-serving to be the whole truth, but it was a good start. He was also sure that Byrd had been murdered solely because of his race. Rowles showered, changed, and as the sun rose, drove to Beaumont, seventy miles south of town. “I was waiting outside the FBI office when it opened that Monday morning,” Rowles said. “I knew we were going to need all the help we could get. We were sitting on a powder keg.”
AS NEWS OF THE DRAGGING made headlines around the world—”The Town That’s Shamed America,” screamed one British tabloid—Jasper’s residents, both black and white, presented a united front to the outsiders who peered in. “We knew we had problems, but we wanted to settle them among ourselves, like a family would do,” said beautician Unav Wade, who was, until recently, the only black business owner on Jasper’s courthouse square. Blacks and whites joined together in prayer that Monday night, embraced one another on the street, and gave countless interviews to the national press, extolling the virtues of a town where, they insisted, there was racial harmony. Privately, they wondered. To blacks, the Byrd murder provided evidence of the bigotry that, despite decades of progress since the days of Jim Crow, still lay just beneath the surface. “Many of us looked at the white community in the days following the murder and thought, ‘How widespread, how deep, does this hatred really go?'” said Walter Diggles, the executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, headquartered in Jasper. Many whites, seized by a sense of collective guilt, found themselves searching their own consciences. “We had to ask ourselves some hard questions,” said Jasper Newsboy contributing editor Julie Webb. “Did we share culpability? Why did this particular crime happen in our town?”
Until the murder, Jasper had enjoyed a reputation for being more tolerant than its neighbors. As far back as 1909, authorities brought a black man to Jasper to forestall a lynching, after he was convicted in Beaumont of raping a white woman. The Jewel of the Forest, as Jasper is known, had at one time thrived off the timber industry, and it has always had more money and opportunity than the insular logging towns of the Piney Woods. With a population almost evenly divided between whites and blacks, Jasper has little in common with places like Evadale, the all-white stronghold at the southern end of the county, where rebel flags dot the landscape. At the time when Byrd was murdered, Jasper had a black mayor—the only black mayor, outside of Beaumont, anyone can recall ever holding office in this corner of East Texas. It had a biracial Ministerial Alliance, when other towns still had separate coalitions for their pastors. And its neighborhoods, while largely organized by race, overlapped with one another; since the railroad ran around Jasper, not through it, there had never been a natural dividing line between them. The fact that a black man had been dragged to death here—and not in Newton or Hemphill or Vidor, for that matter—seemed, to many Jasper residents, a cruel irony.
But the notion that Jasper had been idyllic was a wishful one. The civic introspection that followed the Byrd murder dredged up old history that some residents felt was best forgotten. As recently as the late sixties, the police had routinely beaten blacks, and white men who had come of age during that time recalled other acts of malice. “When I took a deep look inside my heart, I wasn’t ashamed, but I wasn’t pleased with what I found,” said attorney Gray, who prosecuted all three defendants in the Byrd case. “I kept thinking back to one night when I was a freshman in high school, and I was riding around town with some older boys who were throwing water balloons at blacks. I remember police chief Alton Wright stopping us and asking, ‘What’re you boys doing?’ One of the older kids told him, ‘Throwing water balloons at niggers.’ And Wright said, ‘All right. You boys don’t stay out too late.’ I couldn’t help thinking back on how casually Wright had given us his approval and how I’d thought that throwing water balloons at blacks was legitimate fun in 1968. When a crime happens that’s this ugly, you’ve got to be honest and look inside your heart and not fool yourself. You’ve got to sit and think hard about what part you played in the whole mess.”
For a genteel town steeped in Southern propriety, publicly owning up to a legacy of racism did not come easily. To spur discussion, Mayor R. C. Horn assembled a task force of community leaders to evaluate Jasper’s race relations and lead a series of town meetings on the subject. “Search yourself. Examine yourself,” he exhorted his constituents. Held in dozens of churches around town, each gathering began with a prayer for reconciliation and understanding. “It was very awkward and uncomfortable,” said Diggles. “This had never been done before, with blacks and whites sitting down at a table together and talking about race. We had worked side by side for years, but we had never spoken about these issues aloud.” The meetings, which functioned as “giant group-therapy sessions,” recalled one participant, had whites owning up to using racist slurs and harboring old bigotries while also expressing their disgust over Byrd’s murder. “People were willing to admit that they were prejudiced, and they said they wanted to change,” said Father Ron Foshage, of St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Blacks questioned why Jasper had no black bank tellers or black court clerks or black salesmen at the local car dealerships. They expressed their anger at the slow pace of progress and asked why the town swimming pool—which had been filled with concrete following integration—still remained closed after all these years.
Not everyone in Jasper welcomed the frank talk. When the task force surveyed school district employees about their feelings on race, the frustration of some boiled over onto the page. “Are we doing this because Jasper needs this or because of national pressure?” wrote one employee. “I resent being asked these questions!” noted another. Other comments reflected the exasperation people felt about living under the microscope: “I am tired of hearing about this!” “The media was responsible for blowing our incident way out of proportion.” “I think these kinds of questions cause more trouble and unrest.” Jasper’s elected officials felt otherwise; the only way to heal the town’s wounds, they argued, was to share in a dialogue. “People said, ‘Just let it go,’ but you can imagine blacks’ fear and anger at that time,” said Nancy Nicholson, who then served on the Jasper City Council. “They needed to know that we were willing to listen and to change.” She remembered when, at one town meeting, the president of the school board recounted how he had been forced to walk in the street as a child because blacks were not allowed on the sidewalk. “These were the finest people, and I had no idea the depth of the pain they had experienced,” Nicholson said. “I cried every time. Their stories seeped so deep into your spirit because of the inhumanity of the crime that had brought us together.”
In the weeks following the murder, whites braced for violence, but it never came. “Everyone thought this town was going to burn,” said Webb. But with Byrd’s killers in police custody and with the influential Ministerial Alliance urging nonviolence, Jasper weathered what few other communities would have survived. When the Ku Klux Klan came to town to stir up trouble three weeks after the Byrd murder—protesting, ultimately without incident, opposite dozens of armed New Black Panthers on the courthouse square—residents held a prayer vigil and then followed the directives of their pastors and Sheriff Rowles: They stayed home. The Byrds, as they had done ever since news of the killing first broke, appealed for peace. “Let this horrendous violation of the sanctity of life not be a spark that ignites more hatred and retribution,” read a statement issued by the family the day of the Klan rally. “Rather, let this be a wake-up call for America, for all Americans. Let it spark a cleansing fire of self-examination and reflection.” Many people in Jasper credited the Byrds for keeping the peace that summer, when the murder did not trigger so much as a shouting match. “The Byrd family set the tone,” said Nicholson. “Blacks had every right to take to the streets. They could have rioted and looted and shaken their fists in our faces, and they did not. They reached out to us in mercy. They saved this community.”
Had all three capital murder trials not ended in convictions the following year, Jasper might not have been spared. Few blacks expected justice to be served, given what usually happened when black men were killed at the hands of whites. Not since 1854, when a white man murdered a farmer’s most valued slave, had a white person in Texas been sentenced to death for killing a black man. Even convictions could be elusive; as recently as 1988, in neighboring Sabine County, Hemphill’s chief of police and two sheriff’s deputies were acquitted in the murder of a black man they had beaten to death in the town jail. (An appeals court later granted a new trial, and they were convicted by a jury in Tyler of civil rights violations; one conviction was subsequently overturned.) But in Jasper, Guy James Gray defied conventional wisdom and broke with the past when he won not only a conviction for Bill King in February 1999 but a death sentence as well. Seven months later, Russell Brewer received the same verdict, in Bryan. Shawn Berry—who asked to be tried in Jasper, where he was considered a polite, likable young man who did not hold racist views—received a life sentence that November. The verdicts sent a message, Gray believes, “to all white boys in East Texas that this kind of behavior won’t stand. We won’t look the other way any longer.”
The trials also provided Jasper with a sympathetic storyline that helped absolve it of guilt. Testimony revealed that King had not expressed hatred for blacks while growing up in Jasper; only when he was incarcerated for burglary at the Beto Unit, in Tennessee Colony—a so-called gladiator unit—did he choose to survive its brutal culture by joining an all-white gang called the Confederate Knights of America. By the time he was released, he was spewing anti-black rhetoric and had covered much of his body in racist tattoos. Still, the message was clear: He had not learned to hate in Jasper. Nor had Brewer, who hailed from North Texas and had only been passing through town. But Berry was harder to explain. Berry—who prosecutors argued was not a terrified bystander, as he had portrayed himself, but an active participant—was so well-regarded in Jasper that two black witnesses testified on his behalf. What his involvement in such a savage crime really meant was never fully examined. Berry was sentenced a week before Thanksgiving, and just as suddenly as the TV cameras and satellite trucks and inquisitive reporters had descended on the town, they left. For Jasper, life went back to normal.
TODAY, JASPER LOOKS UNSCARRED BY HISTORY. It is the kind of town where kids ride their bikes down Main Street and Scripture is quoted in casual conversation. Locals gather each morning at the Belle-Jim Hotel to trade the latest news over plates of biscuits and gravy, and around town, the conversation centers on the upcoming Jasper Bulldogs game. On a main artery through town, U.S. 190, yellow ribbons flutter next to “We Support Our Troops” signs, and logging trucks stacked high with timber rumble by every now and then. North of the courthouse lie rambling Victorian houses and oaks draped in Spanish moss; to the south stand sagging trailers that are going to seed and empty lots where stray dogs roam. Everywhere there are signs of devotion. Fifty-four churches are scattered around town, on street corners and under pine awnings and down old, rutted roads. Some believe that when Byrd was murdered, their town was divinely appointed. “Perhaps this tragedy happened in Jasper because we were spiritually prepared to shoulder the burden for the nation,” said Father Foshage.
Nearly a mile from the courthouse, next to the largely black public-housing project where Byrd lived out his last days, sits a church whose sign reads “God Is Like Bayer Aspirin. He Works Wonders.” The Faith Temple Church of God in Christ has become a platform for dissent. Its pastor is the Reverend Ray Charles Lewis, the former president of the local NAACP chapter and the most outspoken black minister in Jasper. “Yes, I’m the town radical,” Lewis acknowledged with a chuckle when I visited him this fall. At 42, Lewis does not have the gravitas of some of Jasper’s older preachers; he is wiry and slight and full of nervous energy. But he has made his voice heard, arguing that little has actually changed for blacks in Jasper since the Byrd murder. What improvements have been made, Lewis says, are cosmetic and were done for the sake of public relations. Lewis sees the acts of repentance that followed the killing—like the razing of the cemetery fence—as well-intentioned but empty gestures. “You want change?” Lewis asked. “Take a black person and bury them in the white section of the cemetery. There would be some white folks who would dig their loved ones up.”
Five years after the Byrd murder, Lewis sees an opportunity lost. “We stood before the cameras and said there was no racism, no problems, in Jasper,” he said. “We said the media should leave and we’d be all right. We did this because we wanted to keep the peace. We didn’t make big demands. And not much changed. Where are the black people in law enforcement? In the banks? At restaurants?” Lewis sees the few black employees who were hired after the murder as tokens of appeasement, not harbingers of change. And while much has been made of Jasper having a black mayor in 1998, Lewis is of the opinion—as are a good number of blacks in Jasper—that R. C. Horn, now a Jasper city councilman, was little more than a figurehead for a city government run by whites. Horn is seen as a kind man but not a person who fought hard for the black community when it required a forceful voice. Lewis believes that the mayor’s task force was “just for show” and that it was formed for one reason. “It was done to send a message to the media: ‘We’re handling it. Leave us alone,'” he said. “They spent a lot of time identifying problems, but they didn’t take any action. The town meetings made white people more sensitive to what we face, but what came out of them? What really changed?”
Many whites are angered by Lewis’s criticisms and discount his “extreme viewpoint,” which they say is out of step with the black community. (“White people think he has a chip on his shoulder,” one white resident told me. “He doesn’t have a large following,” said others.) But time and time again, when blacks were reluctant to be interviewed about race relations in Jasper—”We have to live here,” one woman explained—they referred me to Lewis, whose church, contrary to conventional wisdom among whites, is crowded with parishioners on Sundays. His outspokenness has earned him respect in the black community; at the Pineview Apartments, as the public-housing project next to his church is called, Lewis is routinely greeted with smiles and waves and shouts of “Hey, Rev!” Ministering to the poor, Lewis sees the aftermath of segregation; all but one of the four hundred Pineview residents are black. “Until we start talking about equal hiring and lending, we’re not really dealing with racism,” Lewis said. “We can have town meetings and do all the soul-searching we want, but what black people need is a fair shot at jobs and loans.”
A bail bondsman by trade, Lewis enjoys taking on the establishment. His victories are usually small but symbolic; he is perhaps best known for standing up to the school board five years ago. The board had been forced to retool the 1998-1999 academic calendar when construction at the high school cut into the fall semester and students needed to make up class time by taking fewer vacation days. The majority-white board, in turn, deemed Martin Luther King Jr. Day expendable. Jasper’s annual Rodeo Day remained on the calendar as a holiday, even though the rodeo—a popular event for whites but less so for blacks—took place after school hours. Blacks saw not only gross insensitivity in the board’s decision, which came just months after the Byrd murder, but a double standard. Lewis made an emotional plea to the Jasper ISD superintendent during a community meeting that fall. “We want that day no matter what it takes, even if we have to let our kids go to school on Sunday,” Lewis said. To prove his point, he threatened a student walkout. The board reinstated Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday, but not without leaving a bitter impression. “We were in the process of healing then, and that was a slap in the face,” Lewis said. “The rodeo is not a national holiday.”
Today, Lewis knows that the symbolism of Byrd’s murder is lost on some whites. “People still have trouble believing that a crime like this could happen in Jasper,” he explained. Some cling to the notion that the killing was simply a drug deal gone wrong. Others, insensitive to the larger significance of Byrd’s death, grouse about the town park that was recently named in his honor. (“Why would you name a park after him?” one white woman asked me, puzzled. “He wasn’t a role model. He was a drunk.”) Their ignorance, Lewis believes, is shaped by their perception that Jasper has never had racial problems. “It’s easier for whites to forget,” he noted. But what whites have elected to erase has not faded from blacks’ memories. They remember which white families once owned their ancestors. They remember the indignities of Jim Crow. They remember being afraid to venture out after dark. Some of the older men among them, like Lewis’s uncle Thomas Lewis, remember being handcuffed by police officers and then struck with blackjacks. They remember when, in the sixties, a teenager was beaten beyond recognition for talking to a white girl from a prominent family. “He looked like he had two heads when those lawmen were done with him,” said Thomas.
“Whites thought we could talk about racism and make it go away overnight,” said Lewis. “But this runs deep. Maybe our children, or our children’s children, will have better luck than we’ve had.” Our time together was almost over, and he offered to drive me out to Huff Creek Road. It was a beautiful afternoon, and as we made our way into the woods, sunlight filtered through the pine trees above. Five miles from town, we turned onto a thin ribbon of road, which passed over a low-water crossing and then meandered into the woods. The road was solitary and peaceful. No cars passed in either direction. As Lewis drove, it was impossible to not look at the pavement that rolled by, unspooling beneath us. The only sound was the hum of tires against pavement. “When you’re driving this road, it seems like you’re never going to get there,” Lewis said, after a silence. “It just goes on and on. They dragged him all this way.” Finally, we reached the spot where Byrd’s body had been unchained. There were no reminders of what had taken place here—no historical markers, no bronze plaques. There was only an old cemetery, blanketed in pine needles the color of rust. “We need to remember what happened here,” Lewis said, his face solemn. “Everyone wants to forget.”
“I KNOW THAT I MAY BE ONE of the very last people that you want to hear from, but please take the time to read my letter,” began a note that James Byrd Jr.’s children received in February. “The whole world knows me as a racist that took part in one of the worst crimes that has ever happened, but that’s not me at all. And most people will never believe different. But those people are not the ones that I’m concerned about. I’m concerned about you. I know in my heart that you would see me for who I really am if we could just talk for a little while. . . . Please know that I am truly sorry about the things that happened to your father and I am sorry that I didn’t do more to try to prevent it. I wish you the very best that life has to offer. May God bless you and keep you always.” The letter was signed “Shawn A. Berry.”
Berry, now 28, is serving out a life term in the Ramsey I Unit, south of Houston, where the nature of his crime requires that he be kept isolated from other inmates for his protection. Restricted to a six- by ten-foot cell for all but one hour a day, he has had ample time to think about the night of June 6, 1998, and what he might have done differently. “I’ve accepted my fate,” Berry told me when I went to see him in September. “But I wanted the opportunity to look Mr. Byrd’s children in the eye and to let them look me in the eye, so I could tell them what happened and they could judge for themselves.” Byrd’s 24-year-old son, Ross, responded to Berry’s letter, and in March they sat down to talk. Although Ross was raised with his two sisters in Lufkin and saw little of his father while growing up, he had always longed to know him better. They had grown closer in the year leading up to the murder, when James made a renewed effort to see him and invited Ross to visit him during the summer. Instead, Ross had gone to Jasper to attend his father’s funeral. Ever since then, he has struggled with losing a father he was finally getting to know. “I wanted to understand what happened that night,” Ross said. “I had to hear it. I was willing and Berry was willing, so we put it in God’s hands.”
Berry began with a prayer for guidance and understanding and then related the details of the crime as he saw them. Just as he had done when he took the stand in his own defense, Berry cast himself as a passive observer immobilized by fear, who was so frightened by what he saw that night that he had wet his pants. In his sympathetic rendering of his role, Berry decides out of kindheartedness to offer Byrd a ride. King and Brewer become incensed that he has stopped to help a black man and turn on him. When Berry tries to stop the two men from beating Byrd, he is warned that “the same thing could happen to a nigger lover.” Fearing that he will be seen as an accessory to the crime, Berry later hoses down his truck and keeps quiet. Because he does not believe that he participated in the murder, Berry did not apologize for it during his nearly two-hour conversation with Ross. “Remorse is feeling sorry for something you did, so I couldn’t say I felt remorse for what happened that night,” Berry told me. “I am sorry I didn’t do more to prevent it.” Although Ross appreciated Berry’s willingness to talk about the murder, he was unsure what to believe. “He seemed sincere, but not everything adds up,” Ross said. “Besides my father, there are only three people who know what happened that night, and God.”
As I listened to Berry’s side of the story, I wanted to believe him. It was easier to see him as a hapless bystander than as an agent of evil. Berry is as pleasant and ordinary as they come; with his regulation haircut and good manners, he would be far more convincing as a military recruit than as a convicted murderer. As we talked, Berry argued the finer points of his case, citing defense arguments about blood spatters and footprints that both a jury and an appellate court have rejected. He heatedly denied ever making the statement “They wanted to fuck with a nigger, and it got out of hand” to Sheriff Rowles before his confession, arguing that the sheriff was “a liar.” But his story had rung false to me before then, starting at the beginning, when he claimed to have driven Byrd five miles into the woods, with two known racists, for no other purpose than to drink beer. Huff Creek Road was on the way to nowhere and not easy to find in the pitch darkness of a Saturday night. “Five miles out of town?” scoffed Guy James Gray when I later asked him for his thoughts. “This wasn’t a beer-drinking party. Berry knew that. He said they kicked Byrd, but he had blood on his boots and pants. He was up close and personal.”
Berry’s involvement still chafes the former district attorney. “I knew this boy,” said Gray. “He’d been in my house before. I’d hunted with his granddaddy. He was friends with one of my boys. I didn’t want to believe he was this bad.” Gray had initially believed Berry and offered him a plea agreement; he withdrew the offer when DNA testing of the blood on Berry’s clothes came back. “He gave us six or seven statements, and he kept changing his lies,” said Gray. But around Jasper, some still argue that Berry was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Unlike King and Brewer—who now await execution—Berry has always been seen as a hometown boy. Where some see evil, others see only the familiar face of a man who was once their neighbor and friend. As with the cemetery fence, the view depends on where you’re standing.
WHEN SHERIFF ROWLES LOOKS BACK on the biggest case of his career, he is thankful that Jasper persevered. There were no riots, no violence, no further acts of bloodshed. He takes satisfaction in the fact that the three killers were—contrary to what was expected at the time—arrested, charged, and convicted of capital murder, with two sent to death row. “Back then, we were fighting for our survival,” Rowles observed. “The good Lord took care of us. We’re healing real good now.”
Rowles is retiring next year, after a 35-year career in law enforcement, and though he no longer needs to do any politicking, he still enjoys pressing the flesh. As he took care of business around Jasper County one afternoon this fall, he stopped to talk to his constituents, rolling down his window to shout out greetings over the hum of his pickup: “What’re you doing, pardner?” “Hey, girl!” “Staying out of trouble?” (Over his shoulder, he always called in parting, “Be good!”) Rowles is conscious now of making an extra effort toward the black community, through gestures big and small, and as he made his rounds that afternoon, he paid a call on an elderly black woman who had just returned home from the hospital. As she and Rowles made conversation (“Sister Mae, you look good!”), her four-year-old grandson sat opposite them, studying the sheriff intently. The boy finally darted into the next room, then returned wearing a white Western hat—a miniature version of Rowles’s Resistol. The boy resumed his examination of the sheriff, adjusting his own hat until it sat just like Rowles’s. It was a scene unimaginable more than a generation ago, when a visit from the sheriff meant nothing good. Nowadays, Rowles is trying to make new memories.
That is how Jasper would like to be remembered—as a place of hope and change. Still, one Friday night this August, when the Jasper Bulldogs played their season opener against the Port Neches-Groves Indians, another, more complicated picture emerged. The evening was no different from any other game night: The Jasper High School stadium was brilliantly lit under a darkening sky as the Bulldogs dashed onto the field to the sounds of foot-stomping and drumrolls and roaring applause. Cheerleaders with sun-bleached hair beamed at the crowd as they stood in formation, waving pom-poms to cries of “Go, Big Red!” Long-limbed teenagers stood talking in clusters by the concession stand, and kids ran underfoot, their hands sticky with Dr Pepper and Pixie Stix.
And, as was true of every game night, the spectators who sat in the bleachers had segregated themselves according to race. The reserved section, along the fifty-yard line, was entirely white. The general-admission sections on either side were all black. So dramatic was the division that it appeared, at first glance, to be by design, as if the past half-century had folded back on itself and the days of mandated segregation had returned. Change comes slowly, even in a place with the best of intentions. When I commented on the seating arrangements to the black woman standing next to me, she glanced across the bleachers for a moment, as if she had forgotten herself how peculiar the view was. She shrugged and said, “That’s the way it’s always been, I guess.”