The last time I saw John William King, he was leaving a courtroom in Jasper, Texas, in handcuffs. It had taken a jury of 11 whites and one African-American just 2 hours to convict him of one of the most heinous hate crimes America had ever seen.
King was 24 at the time, clean-cut with an engaging smile. He did not look like someone who could chain a man to the back of a pickup truck and drag him for nearly 3 miles, ripping the body into pieces scattered along the road.
He looked like an all-American guy. But 49-year-old James Byrd Jr., the unfortunate black man who crossed paths with King and his two accomplices that awful day in 1998, proved how easily looks could be deceiving. One had to gaze beyond King's boyish charm to see the monster that lived inside.
Last week, King was put to death by lethal injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas. But his execution did not change a thing. Before the week had ended, evil was resurrected during a Passover service in California.
King orchestrated the lynching in Jasper and, for a while, he was one of the most loathsome men in America. A self-proclaimed white supremacist, he rekindled memories of a vile part of our nation's history that some thought had been buried 40 years before. He reminded us that hatred and bigotry, when cast into a shallow grave, could simply kick off the dirt and rise again with an even greater vengeance.
Byrd, an unemployed ex-convict, became a martyr. His funeral drew a thousand people from across the country, including politicians and activists. He had not lived a perfect life, but he did not deserve such a horrendous death. On this point, most Americans agreed.
The only way Jasper and the rest of the country could heal, most seemed to think, was if King were put to death. Two decades later, he was.
As a national reporter for the Tribune, I covered the 1999 trial, but I had long forgotten the defendant's name. By the time he was executed, most Americans likely had never heard about what King had done, or they could not recall.
One of King's accomplices was executed in 2011 and the third is serving a life sentence in prison. Byrd's murder reawakened America's spirit, but it quickly fell asleep again. People rarely mentioned it anymore.
In this country, outrage is fleeting. It mellows over time like emotional pain vanishes after injecting a synthetic drug. When it comes to easing the burden of injustice, America's drug of choice is apathy.
Byrd's slaying recalled an era when African-Americans were routinely lynched by hooded nightriders. Jasper residents feared their town being portrayed as one of the most racist communities in the nation. Some believed at the time, however, that the case would be a catalyst for change across the country, as the nation came together in solidarity.
But it changed nothing. Years later, there would be racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Charlottesville, Virginia. There would be religious slaughters in Charleston, South Carolina, and Pittsburgh. And there would be countless stories about attacks on Muslims, gays and lesbians, Hispanics and African-Americans that would not even make the news. And the nation would be even more divided.
When the trial was over, Booker T. Hunter, then the president of the Jasper chapter of the NAACP, told me that King would have to die in order for people to heal.
"If we get total justice, the death penalty, people will begin to heal," Hunter said. "We will never forget it, but we can move on."
The truth is that we moved on long before King was put to death. But we still have not healed. There have been too many evil people picking at the scab.
I am not an advocate of the death penalty. I have never believed that a life for a life is the best way to right a wrong. Retaliating with more violence is not the way to end violence. And certainly, it will not put an end to hatred.
But the timing of King's death seemed appropriate. As our country is under siege by bigotry, contempt and anger, America was reminded that evil is nothing fresh. It is something we have toiled with and cried over since our nation was founded.
Though people eventually forget and move on, bigotry lingers and waits for the perfect moment to strike again. Hardly a week goes by in today's America that we don't see this hatred manifested. Each time we stop and wonder if evil is winning, and whether we are helpless to stop it.
Last Wednesday, King lay on a gurney with a needle in his arm. Witnesses said his eyes were closed the entire time, moving only once to take a deep breath when the killing process began. When the warden asked if he had any last words, King, 44, said, "No."
Byrd's sister watched from the gallery. "There was no sense of relief," she said afterward. Some of the victim's relatives knew that from the start and had advocated mercy for the killer.
It only took three days for evil to rear its head again. A gunman, yelling anti-Semitic slurs, opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, California. A 60-year-old woman was killed. A rabbi was shot in the hand and two others were wounded.
King's execution did nothing to stop it.