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How the James Byrd Jr. Case affected the lives of law enforcement, journalists and lawyers

The community in Jasper continues to heal 20 years after the dragging death of James Byrd Junior.

The community in Jasper continues to heal 20 years after the dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

Byrd, 49, was tied to the back of a pick-up truck by three white men then dragged along a country road to his death in 1998. 

His tragic death impacted the lives of people close to the case like law enforcement, lawyers and journalists.

“Jasper County got a scar that runs from here to here and it's healing, you can’t see that scar real good now but it’s still there,” said Newton County Sheriff Billy Rowles.

Sheriff Billy Rowles was the sheriff of Jasper County from 1998 to 2005.

On June 7, 1998, Byrd was chained to the back of a truck then dragged down Huff Creek Road by three white men.

His head was decapitated after he hit a culvert on the road while the rest of his body was dumped in the middle of the road between a church and graveyard.

“I was there the whole time," Rowles said. "I was there to help load the body in the body bag, helped pull the head and the shoulder out of the culvert."

Sheriff Rowles has shared the tragic story hundreds of times at press conferences and during three capital murder trials for John King, Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry.

All three of them were convicted for Byrd’s death.

Brewer was executed by lethal injection on September of 2011.

King is currently on death row while Shawn Berry was sentenced to life in prison.

“I retired because of this, it started affecting my health, started affecting the family," Sheriff Rowles said. "So my wife asked me not to run and I didn’t run."

He retired in 2005 and spent seven to eight years away from law enforcement to heal but he eventually found his way back into the profession.

“The old juices got to flowing again, got to where I was having fun again being the police. Being the police nine times out of 10 was fun," said Sheriff Rowles.

For the past year-and-a-half he’s been the Newton County sheriff.

Former prosecutor Pat Hardy said he was able to de-stress from the disturbing details from the case through jiu-jitsu.

After he spent a long day looking over evidence with his partner, prosecutor Guy James Gray would go back home and immediately go to his jiu-jitsu school.

“Winning a case, never meant as much to me as winning a jiu-jitsu match,” said Hardy. “After one of those days I’d be so tired. When someone gets ready to choke you, you wake up,” said Hardy.

He prosecuted all three of the trials alongside Guy James.

Between trials he was in front of TV cameras and was constantly asked questions by reporters.

Hardy said he never wanted to be the center of attention but found himself there after a photo was taken of him holding the logging chain that was used to drag James Byrd Jr.

“I jerked it out of that box, and it hit on that wood floor on the Jasper County Courthouse and I guarantee, you talk about making an impact,” said Hardy.

This case did not negatively impact his life but it was one of his biggest accomplishments.

However, he said some of the hateful details in the case are something he will never forget.

“The main thing that goes through my mind is the hatred to do something like this,” said Hardy.

He retired for the first time in 2002.

He focused on training then started to focus on becoming a Black Belt Jiu-Jitsu world champion.

Hardy achieved his goal when he won the black belt jiu-jitsu world championship for his weight and age group in 2005 and 2008.

A former journalist named Cathy Frye from the Beaumont Enterprise said memories of the tragic death of James Byrd Jr. came back to her when she flipped through old newspaper articles she wrote.

She covered James Byrd’s murder the day after it happened along with the two capital murder trials.

“I cried on the way back, I couldn't imagine a human suffering that much at the hands of someone else just because he was black,” said Frye.

Frye looked at another article with the picture of Shawn Berry’s truck which was used to drag Byrd to his death.

“The photographer was laying on his back behind the pick-up truck and shooting up at the back of it and it just gave me chills because he was trying to show what this man would have last seen before he died,” said Frye.

Cathy said she heard more chilling details during the capital murder trials.

The moment that stuck out to her the most was when she saw the video of Huff Creek Road.

“It really resonated, how long two miles would be for someone suffering to that degree,” said Frye.

“Sitting there in silence thinking what that would be like, it’s the length of time that struck home with the jury.”

Frye also had the opportunity to interview Shawn Berry in jail.

“In this interview there was just no remorse even for the fact that someone died, whether he was involved in it or not and that’s what struck me,” said Frye. “It was all about him and whether he was racist, not that the fact that he was murdered and the truck was the murder weapon."

Cathy said reporting during this tragedy helped her realize her role as a journalist was to report the facts but also show compassion.

The dragging death of James Byrd Jr. not only changed her but the city of Jasper.

“It’s still very sobering especially to have witnessed something of this nature, it really changes the way you view the world and the way you perceive what is and isn’t racism."

Sheriff Billy Rowles has been serving Newton County for a year-and-a-half in office.

Pat Hardy is retired and still practicing jiu-jitsu but he is considering going back into law.

Cathy Frye works in Little Rock for a non-profit organization.

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