The social reverberations from most murders are so constricted and short-lived that they alter comparatively few lives or institutions. But when three young, white ne'er-do-wells murdered James Byrd Jr., a black man in Jasper, Texas, by dragging him for three miles behind their truck, the shock waves rolled around the world. USA Today correspondent Dina Temple-Raston spent more than two years probing and assessing the personalities, events and histories surrounding this conspicuously brutal 1998 crime for her new book, A Death in Texas. Two of Byrd's killers now sit on death row, and the third is serving a life sentence.
Race is central to this story, not simply because two of the killers were avowed white supremacists, but because Jasper had its own history of racism sometimes blatant, but more often subversively subtle. Determined that their town would not conform to stereotype, the citizens of Jasper were virtually unanimous in their demand that Byrd's killers be caught, convicted and given the maximum punishment. But, as Temple-Raston notes, deep-seated suspicion and resentment on both sides soon leaked through the public displays of racial harmony.
As is common with such politically charged and media saturated cases, this one attracted its share of race-baiting opportunists, notably Jesse Jackson, Khalid Abdul Mohammed of the New Black Panthers and Michael Lowe of the Ku Klux Klan. Jasper turned its back emphatically on all of them. If the story can be said to have a hero, it is surely Sheriff Billy Rowles, who quickly solved the case, worked to unify the community, firmly quieted the rabble-rousers and provided the prosecutors with all the evidence they needed to obtain convictions. Temple-Raston is a meticulous researcher and a graceful writer. She interviewed almost everyone involved in the case (and dozens who weren't), delved into Jasper's dismal past and present, and kept track of what happened to each of the principal players after the verdicts were handed down. Her narration has a crisp, even, methodical tone untainted by sentimentality or sensationalism. Like all good reporters, she keeps herself and her feelings on the sidelines. She draws no grand conclusions about causes and effects. This was, after all, a crime committed on impulse, not by design. Whatever its origins, it made a socially rigid town take stock of itself in a way it never had before.
Edward Morris writes on crime, music and other social matters from Nashville.