By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - As Texas prepares to execute one of his father's killers, Ross Byrd hopes the state shows the man the mercy his father, James Byrd Jr., never got when he was dragged behind a truck to his death.
"You can't fight murder with murder," Ross Byrd, 32, told Reuters late Tuesday, the night before Wednesday's scheduled execution of Lawrence Russell Brewer for one of the most notorious hate crimes in modern times.
"Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can't hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn't what we want."
Brewer is scheduled to die by lethal injection after 6 p.m. local time in Huntsville, Texas.
His pending execution comes 10 years after Governor Rick Perry signed into law the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, strengthening punishments for hate crimes.
An avowed white supremacist, Brewer, 44, was one of three white men convicted of capital murder in the kidnapping and killing of Byrd Jr., in June 1998.
John King, another white supremacist, is on death row awaiting an execution date. Shawn Berry is serving a life sentence.
Brewer would be the 11th man executed in Texas this year. In Georgia, the execution of Troy Davis, convicted of killing a police officer, is scheduled for the same night.
If both executions go forward, Brewer and Davis would be the 34th and 35th executions in the United States in 2011.
In Texas, a vigil in Huntsville began at midnight with civil rights activist Dick Gregory.
Gregory has joined Ross Byrd and Martin Luther King III in the past to publicly protest Brewer's execution.
Ross Byrd, a recording artist studying for his MBA at nearby Stephen F. Austin University, said Tuesday that he wouldn't attend the execution but will "be there in spirit."
He says he doesn't want to "waste my time" watching anybody die, even a man who killed his dad.
"Life goes on," said Byrd, who has a son. "I've got responsibilities that I have every day. It's not on the front page of my mind. I'm looking for happy times."
In a crime that touched off a nationwide effort to tighten punishments for hate crimes, Brewer, King and Berry were convicted of offering Byrd Jr. a ride on his way home from a party, and then attacking him while they were standing outside the truck smoking on a country road near Jasper, Texas, according to a report by the Texas Attorney General's Office.
They beat him, and then chained his legs to the back of their pick-up and dragged him for several miles, the report said. By the time they stopped, his head and arm had been ripped off. They left his body on the country road.
Brewer maintained his innocence, saying Berry had killed Byrd Jr. by cutting his throat. But prosecutors said Brewer and King were prison buddies bent on starting a racist organization in Jasper and "intended the killing to be a signal that his (King's) racist organization was up and running."
The crime touched off a firestorm of support in Texas and the United States for laws that would enhance punishments for crimes motivated by race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry.
The jury sentenced the three men as the nation was still reeling from a second hate crime that same year -- the October 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, beaten and left to die on a fence in Wyoming because he was gay.
In 2001, Texas passed its hate crimes bill named after Byrd Jr., and its symbolic signing by Perry was a "watershed moment" in Texas and one of Perry's "finest moments in office," said Texas state Senator Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, who helped move the bill through the Texas Senate in spite of staunch Republican opposition.
Eight years later, President Obama signed into law a similar federal bill named after Byrd Jr. and Shepard.
"James Byrd's murder certainly changed Texas and, in many ways, the nation," Ellis told Reuters.
"It was a wake-up call that evil and hate, while no longer considered mainstream views, are more prevalent and virulent than we pretend."
Ellis said the death sentence in Brewer's case "will close a chapter in this tragic story."
"I cannot say for certain that it is a requirement in order for justice to be served but, as Mr. Brewer was a ringleader in the most brutal hate crime in the post-Civil Rights era, it is certainly a very appropriate sentence," he said.
Unlike Byrd's children and wife, all of whom oppose the use of the death penalty against his killers, other family members have been supportive of it.
"I'm not down on them at all for the fact that they support the death penalty," said David Atwood, a good friend of Ross Byrd's and founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "They've gone through a traumatic experience, and there's a history in our country of horrible things happening to African Americans, so it's understandable that a number of them would say finally we're getting some justice."
He called Ross Byrd's stand "powerful."
Byrd says the execution of Brewer is simply another expression of the hate shown toward his father on that dark night in 1998. Everybody, he said, including the government, should choose not to continue that cycle.
"Everybody's in that position," he said. "And I hope they will stand back and look at it before they go down that road of hate. Like Ghandi said, an eye for an eye, and the whole world will go blind."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)