The Long Dark Road: Bill King and Murder in Jasper, Texas (Book Review)

Author:  Ainslie, Ricardo
Publisher: Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Bertram Karon, Summer 2005

Ricardo Ainslie tells a good story. He writes well, leading the reader along. It is a first rate true life detective story, written by a perceptive psychoanalytic observer who sticks close to the facts—what people actually say and what are ascertainable facts. Nonetheless, his sensitive descriptions and the pictures evoke the feeling tone. He does not embellish the story with arbitrary speculations or abstractions, but gives enough information so that the reader can readily speculate in a number of reasonable directions.

This is the story is of what is generally considered the most recent lynching of an African-American by whites in the United States, the murder by dragging behind a truck for over two miles of a man fastened to a chain. It happened in Jasper, Texas, in the early hours of Sunday, June 7, 1998. What was left of the body was left in front of an African-American church on the edge of town. However, while in good repair, the church was no longer used for services other than funerals (it was near the cemetery), so the intent to terrify the African-American community, if that was the intent, was not efficiently carried out.

The investigation and the people who carried it out are described in their own words. The difficulty in doing a thorough job and the wish to be thorough come through. The law enforcement people are haunted by the past of Texas in general, and of the Jasper area. The phrase “This is not 1920” echoes again and again. In 1920 in one of two local lynchings, an African-American was dragged to death behind a truck. Everyone knew who did the lynchings, no one was ever arrested, and the perpetrators were proud.

The sheriff, DA, and other law enforcement personnel described more recent lynchings that their fathers talked about, where their fathers felt guilty about not doing anything. There were now African-American policemen and an African-American mayor in Jasper. But the sheriff, the DA, the prosecutors, and the judge were white. All seemed to be genuinely concerned with doing the right thing. They complained of the glare of outside publicity and that the media of the world were there in Jasper watching, making their job more difficult. Ainslie accepts their statements as accurate, that they were genuinely concerned about doing the right thing, and that Texas had changed. But he also reports, accurately, that no white person anywhere in Texas until this trial (1999) had ever been convicted of capital murder for killing an African-American.

It was the local sheriff who made a point of bringing the FBI in immediately, which helped greatly in terms of resources for investigation. Bringing in the FBI was also intended as a signal that the local authorities were not going to cover up such a heinous crime. But the FBI did not want to bring federal charges. It was left to the local authorities to prosecute.

The story of the investigation and of the trial are fascinating. The three perpetrators are interesting. One of them, manager of the local movie theatre, was not considered racist by African-Americans who testified for him as character witnesses. But the most interesting character is Bill King, the apparent ringleader, a likeable intelligent man who it is hard to believe was the actual perpetrator. Ainslie reports his own feelings of wanting to believe him, and then the realization that King’s words are inconsistent with too many facts and are even inconsistent with King’s own accounts.

This is not a psychoanalytic case history. King was not a patient. Ainslie did have interviews with him on death row, and he had a chance to talk to those who knew him. He presents what they said, and does not try to create a fictional reality.

The most important trauma was that he was adopted, but was not told until he was thirteen. Before that he did well in school. He was doted on by his mother (stepmother), and King referred to himself as “a mama’s boy.” Shortly afterwards his mother died. On her deathbed, his much older brother, whom King described as mean and who had not lived with the family at any time in King’s life, visited her and she seemed pleased, which King took as evidence that only her biological son mattered. His school performance deteriorated after her death, and he dropped out before finishing high school. He got into minor scrapes with the law, eventually was sent to “boot camp” for seventy-five days, came out seeming improved, quit a job because the boss “was giving him favors” (as a favor to his father), was sent to a “restitution center” where his tough guy attitude got him sent to prison for two years. In prison this 5’9” man was soon beaten up by African-Americans (as was usual in that unit to see if he could and would fight back) and proved himself by fighting back even though he got hurt, and he joined a white gang, the Confederate Knights of America. (There were two other larger white racist gangs, and several Mexican-American gangs. However, half of all the inmates were African-American and they were the largest gangs.) In that prison you were either a “wood” (tough guy), a “ho” (sexual object), or someone who paid for protection (which they might not get anyway). Tattooing was illegal in prison, so all the “woods” were tattooed, including “patches” that proved your gang identity. He had elaborate tattoos over his arms and body and even penis. He eventually became head of his Confederate Knights, and he learned some of the racist ideology. The man he displaced as head was later one of his confederates in the Jasper murder.

It is clear from Ainslie’s description, that while King was a disturbed adolescent and man, it was his experiences in the prison that most shaped his sadism and his racism. Ainslie’s description of the prison includes only what is easily ascertainable, but we can be sure it was hell. As is usual in prisons, guards did not (or could not) protect prisoners from each other. In prison, African-American gangs were the majority, and whites were an embattled minority. Among the inmates the sadists of any ethnic group were the people in charge. A racist view of the world seemed true.
One inference which Ainslie does not make is that King may have believed that Texas whites would accept him as a hero and cover for him. After all, a similar lynching in the old days was well known and the perpetrators of much more recent lynchings were known, and undoubtedly heroes in some parts of the white population. It seemed like this single act of sadism might well make him a hero. It was a poor judgment, but that is clear by hindsight, not necessarily clear given the white folklore of Jasper. The murder was an impulsive act, seemingly not planned before the night the opportunity arose.

In my experience, reformatories and prisons generally make inmates more criminal and more sadistic. Sadism is the supposed way to prove you are a man and not a homosexual, and that becomes more important than any other realistic consequence. When I was chief psychologist at a reformatory for male adolescents in the late ‘50’s in a northern state, African-American inmates would frequently beat up white inmates, while some of the guards (white) would regularly beat up any African-American inmate who attempted to be friendly with whites or who acted as if they were equal to whites. Inmate beatings were punished if the offender was known. Officially the guard beatings never occurred; beaten inmates were transferred to isolation until the bruises healed. (Eventually, as the result the efforts of Henry David, the state’s chief psychologist, inmates in solitary began to be regularly examined by a physician, which limited guard beatings.)

There used to be a society for the Psychiatric Treatment of Criminal Offenders. Such an idea is no longer fashionable. First, psychodynamic treatment was abandoned for “simpler” therapies, then studies were done which found “therapy” did not help. But as Hans Toch, of the School of Criminal Justice at SUNY, Albany, has pointed out, studies included people without training, called “counselors”, whose duties included checking the laundry. Such people are not helpful. But there are data that when sensible treatments are made available, they are helpful. As inexpensive a treatment as Maxwell Jones’ therapeutic communities were used by Douglas Grant during the Korean War with naval personnel sentenced to prison with excellent results. The majority were returned to a full tour of duty without getting in trouble again. August Aichhorn (the title of whose book was puritanically mistranslated as Wayward Youth, instead of accurately as Lost Youth) frequently had good results. A. S. Neil, the author of Summerhill, said that he learned how to help children with problems from a therapeutic reformatory in England called the Little Commonwealth, which ceased when its originator died. When I was Chief Psychologist at a reformatory, I did a study to see what percentage of criminals were neurotic or psychotic. I was startled to discover, that of 40 consecutive first jailings, all 40 had been described by their teachers in school as emotionally disturbed before they had ever gotten in trouble with the law, had been sent to Child Guidance Centers (this was just before the beginning of Community Mental Health Centers) where they were evaluated, pieces of paper were written, no psychotherapy was offered, and they received no treatment or were referred for medication which wouldn’t help anyway and which they would not take even if it did help because it tends to make you more passive, and in their social groups you lose status when you become more passive.

In my experience criminals are very treatable, but society has never made a decision that it wants to treat and rehabilitate criminals or potential criminals. I examined 600 inmates, and discovered only 3 true psychopaths, one of whom was a senior member of the reformatory staff. The rest were neurotics, borderlines, or psychotics who committed crimes. Of course, you have to understand that a sequence of behavior, including a crime, can be a symptom, and not just DSM-IV labels. But most psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychologists know that.

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