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Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 21:07 GMT

World: Americas

Racist killer sentenced to die

John King: Unique position on death row in Texas

A Texas court has passed the death penalty on a white supremacist who dragged a black man to his death behind his pick-up truck.

James Helm: "King now knows his future"
John King, 24, had been convicted on Tuesday of the racially-motivated murder of James Byrd, who died after being dragged for nearly three miles near the town of Jasper.

Spectators taunted King as he was led from the courthouse.

One spectator called out, asking if King had anything to say to the Byrd family. He responded with an obscenity.

Jurors sentenced him to death instead of life imprisonment on Wednesday, rejecting the tearful pleas of his father.

Sobbing almost uncontrollably, Ronald King asked for his son's life to be spared.

[ image: Ronald King pleaded for his son's life]
Ronald King pleaded for his son's life
"We've invested a lot of love in that boy. You hate to think you're going to lose him," said Ronald King.

Leaving court, the father was hugged by the daughter of his son's victim, who said: "God bless you."

King is the only white among 452 Texas inmates to be on death row for killing a black person.

State law requires death penalty cases to be appealed. The BBC's Richard Lister said it will be five to eight years before all of King's appeals are exhausted.

Richard Lister: "He showed no reaction when sentence was passed"
Members of the Ku Klux Klan and New Black Panthers demonstrated outside the courthouse as the jury considered sentence.

The trials of two other white men charged in the case, Shawn Berry, 24, and Lawrence Brewer, 31, have not been scheduled.

'Acting out in prison'

Prosecution witnesses had told the jury King was capable of more violence.

[ image: Verdict 'won't bring him back']
Verdict 'won't bring him back'
He had threatened a policeman while in jail and smashed a television set, the court heard.

Dr Edward Gripon, a forensic psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution, said he doubted King would change his racist beliefs.

"Some offences are so extreme and so dramatic they remove all doubt what a person is capable of," said Dr Gripon.

Nick Bryant reports: Applause in court as the verdict was read out
In a search of King's cell, deputies discovered a home-made knife created from a radio antenna.

But a defence witness argued against sentencing King to death on the basis that he would be 64 before eligible for parole.

Execution capital of US

Since the death penalty became legal again in 1976, Texas has executed more people than any other state, with a total of 170 as of mid-February. Virginia comes a distant second on 61.

King's case incited deep passion. President Clinton said that nationwide expressions of outrage over Mr Byrd's death demonstrated that "an act of evil like this is not what our country is all about".

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