OUTSIDE, JASPER'S 110-YEAR-OLD courthouse was flanked by satellite trucks and patrolled, very conspicuously, by sheriff's deputies and a police helicopter. Inside, the second-floor courtroom where Judge Joe Bob Golden presides was jammed with out-of-town reporters and television people. The trial of John William King, 24, in the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. is sensational stuff, an appallingly brutal murder made even uglier by its resemblance to a Klan lynching from the dark days of Jim Crow. Last week the case lived up to its lurid billing when the prosecution showed that Byrd, who was decapitated and torn to pieces as he was allegedly being dragged feet first behind a pickup truck, had been alive and conscious when the horror began. The proof, District Attorney Guy James Gray explained, is that Byrd's elbows had been ground down to the bone while he desperately tried to hold himself up, away from the road surface, before he died from overwhelming trauma.
No town wants this kind of notoriety--and Jasper, where the schools were integrated 30 years ago and where the mayor and several other elected officials are black, has reason to resent the media circus that's come to town. Aside from the Byrd family, which is sitting stony-eyed behind the prosecution table, few local residents are attending the trial day by day. Jasper--the real Jasper, according to locals--can be found just across the square from the courthouse, where the Kiwanis Club was meeting for its weekly lunch while the trial unfolded. At the integrated club, easy banter could not conceal the community's baffled distress. ""The big thing with younger kids, like my granddaughter, is "Why?' '' said Cliff Williams, a retired school administrator who is one of two African-Americans on the city council. ""I can't tell them . . . but you can talk in a way to make the kids angry at another race, and you don't want to do that.'' A white member, city Judge Robert Jackson, said, ""This is obviously an appalling event, [and] it's caused us great pain. But it has also caused us to re-examine ourselves, and that's been a positive thing.''
Jasper's attempt at healing began last summer, when a task force was formed to address the lingering problems of race. One symbolic step last month was to tear down an old fence that divided blacks and whites in the city cemetery. Another is the creation of a new city park named after James Byrd Jr. ""What happened out there on that dark road does not reflect what Jasper is all about,'' says the Rev. Bobby L. Hudson of the Goodwill Baptist Church. ""Not to say there isn't racism here. But we get along, on an intellectual basis, very well.''
Nobody knows whether the sense of community can survive the months ahead. Jasper is under siege, and not just by the news media. Last June, the Texas KKK marched through town while two black groups counterdemonstrated; last week a group of black Muslims came to town to observe King's trial. And his case is only the beginning. Two alleged accomplices, Shawn Berry, 24, and Lawrence Brewer, 31, will be tried separately later this year. (All three face the death penalty and have pleaded not guilty.) At the Kiwanis, Robert Jackson says the murder, paradoxically, ""has brought us closer together.'' But like everyone in Jasper, he knows the ordeal is far from over.
A FUGITIVE ONE STEP CLOSER TO JUSTICE?
MOST OBSERVERS AT the Palais de Justice in Bordeaux, France, last Thursday expected that hippie icon Ira Einhorn was going to beat the system: that after 20 years of running from a murder rap, he'd get a ruling to foil his long-sought return to the United States. The sisters of Holly Maddux, whose body was found in a trunk in Einhorn's apartment in 1979, dreaded the word from the three-judge panel, while Einhorn and his lawyers were confident it would allow him to continue living in France. But the smile fell from Einhorn's goateed face when the judges announced ""a favorable decision for the request of extradition.'' Einhorn would be coming home.
Maybe. The problem isn't the conditions set by the judges: a new Pennsylvania law, passed after France refused extradition last year, will allow Philadelphia authorities to redo the trial in absentia that convicted Einhorn of Maddux's 1977 murder. And they never did seek a death penalty. The trouble comes from the judges' odd decision to release Einhorn during the appeal process. The former guru has vowed never to do time. Now he has time to run.