Today the Supreme Court refused to block the execution of John William King, who was scheduled to die by lethal injection tonight for the 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr. Byrd, who was African-American, was the victim of a gruesome crime that spurred tougher hate-crime laws.
Byrd’s death drew nationwide headlines after he was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged down a road in Jasper, Texas. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit explained, Byrd’s “torso, legs, and left arm were found on Huff Creek Road, in front of a church. The rest of Byrd was found a mile and a half up the road.”
John William King, who was a member of a white-supremacist gang during an earlier stint in prison, was one of three men convicted of Byrd’s murder. Ever since he was indicted, King has maintained that he was completely innocent. At King’s trial in 1999, King’s lawyers conceded that he was at the scene when Byrd was killed and was guilty of murder – but not capital murder, warranting the death penalty, because King hadn’t kidnapped Byrd.
When the case came to the Supreme Court yesterday, King was not arguing that he was innocent. Instead, he relied on the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in McCoy v. Louisiana, holding that the defendant has a constitutional right to insist that his lawyer not admit his guilt, even when the lawyer believes that admitting guilt is the defendant’s best chance to avoid the death penalty.
King had asked the justices to weigh in specifically on whether McCoy applies to the circumstances of his case – when his lawyer had admitted that King was guilty of a lesser offense – and whether it applies retroactively. But the justices declined to do so. In a brief order issued shortly before 7:30 p.m. EDT tonight, the justices denied both King’s request to put his execution on hold and his petition for review. There were no recorded dissents from the ruling.
The Supreme Court’s order cleared the way for Texas to execute King. King’s execution had been scheduled for 6 p.m. CDT but had been delayed until the Supreme Court acted. Once the stay was denied, the execution went forward, and King was pronounced dead shortly after 7 p.m. CDT.
This post was also published on SCOTUSblog.