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Defendant says friend killed dragging victim

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Lawrence Russell Brewer took the stand in his own defense Friday and blamed the brutal dragging death of a black man on a co-defendant. Sobbing, the former leader of a racist prison gang told the jury: "I didn't mean to cause his death."

It was the first testimony by one of the three men charged with killing James Byrd Jr.

Brewer admitted he was in the pickup truck with co-defendants Shawn Berry and John William King when Byrd was dragged to his death in June 1998. But he said it was Berry who slashed Byrd's throat, then chained him to the back of the truck and dragged him for three miles along a bumpy country road, shredding and dismembering his body.

Berry, 24, is still awaiting trial. King, 24, was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in February.

"I didn't mean to cause his death," Brewer said. "I had no intentions of killing nobody."

As the defense began its case Friday, Brewer, 32, testified that Byrd was riding with the three defendants in the pickup when Berry stopped to take some steroids. King lit a cigarette, he said, and Byrd walked around the truck and said, "Let me smoke with you white boys."

Next, Brewer said, he heard some glass break and saw King and Byrd fighting.

"I don't know what to do," Brewer testified. "When I go around the corner of the truck, I tried to kick Byrd in his side."

Brewer said he tried to break it up. "That's when I heard snapping of Shawn's knife. He popped it open . . . Shawn came around and I guess cut his (Byrd's) throat.

"Everything stood still just a moment. Byrd slid down the side of the truck."

Brewer said Berry chained Byrd to the truck and kicked the body several times.

"We heard that chain coming out of the back of the truck, rattling, vibrating the back of the truck," he said. "Nothing was said (about) what it was hooked to."

Brewer testified that as the truck was speeding down the road, they all were aware of the body hitting a culvert. A pathologist has testified that is where Byrd, 49, was decapitated.

"I looked back," Brewer said. "I thought he had come off there. I didn't know he had lost his arm and head.

"I told him (Berry) to pull over and take the man off. . . . Everyone knew something had happened because it felt like the rear end or transmission had fell off."

Brewer said Berry wanted to leave the body between a black church and cemetery at the end of the road. That was where Byrd's torso was found.

Asked by his attorney if the killing was intentional, he said: "I intended to break up the fight. If I knew the results, I would have gone to the cops."

Brewer also chronicled his burglary and drug history and the parole violation that eventually put him in prison in 1991. He said he joined a racist inmate group, the Confederate Knights of America, merely for protection.

"When they get finished abusing you sexually, they use you like a trading tool," he said. "They basically sell you for commissary, for cigarettes, whatever they want of value."

His voice shaking and trembling, he said he hid from fellow gang members the fact he was married to a Hispanic woman and had a son.

Brewer, identified in court documents as the "exalted cyclops" of the Confederate Knights, said the group began falling apart when an inmate who had recruited him was transferred out of the prison, leaving leadership of the dozen or so members to him.

He also said a fellow inmate lied when he testified that Brewer, after his arrest in the Byrd case, said all black people should be shot in the head.

"I can't see myself making that statement," he said, "because I knew I was being watched because of the crime that occurred."

And he suggested a note written to a Hispanic inmate that contained a backward swastika and racist language could have been forged by another prisoner.

"I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm not fixing to write "White Power' and a swastika to no one but a white person," he said.

The defense began its case Friday after four days of prosecution testimony.