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Jailhouse conversion comes too late to be convincing



Published: Tue, September 25, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Lost in all the news about the attack on the World Trade Center was an Ohio story about how John Byrd Jr. has once again cheated death.

Byrd, who smirked his way through a murder trial 15 years ago and wrote a taunting letter to the widow of the man he was convicted of killing, has once again avoided execution. His defenders say he is a "changed man," a bizarre argument for showing mercy to someone who should have never had a chance to "change."

Background: Byrd was convicted of fatally stabbing convenience store clerk Monte Tewksbury of Cincinnati during a 1983 robbery. Byrd has acknowledged he took part in the robbery but claims an accomplice, John Brewer, stabbed Tewksbury. Brewer admitted to the slaying in a 1989 affidavit, which Byrd's lawyers chose to sit on for more than a decade.

A jury tried and convicted Byrd of the murder, about which Byrd used to brag. To overturn that conviction on an affidavit that was created six years after the fact and submitted to an appeals court 10 years after that would be a miscarriage of justice.

Monte Tewksbury, a Procter & amp; Gamble Co. supervisor of clinical tests, was working a second job at a convenience store to make money for the college education of his three children.

Before dying, he told his wife Sharon that he had cooperated with his robbers, giving them money and his wedding ring before he was fatally stabbed.

Time has passed: The time for Byrd to raise his claim of innocence was in 1986, when he was on trial. Instead of showing contrition for the role he played and arguing innocence of the actual murder, he chose to exhibit defiance.

Sharon Tewksbury says Byrd taunted her children in court at his trial. "He made efforts to stare down my children, made obscene gestures with his mouth and all sorts of things, to the point where the children were excused from the courtroom," she says. In 1986, from prison, he sent her a letter in which he threatened to make life "a living hell" for her family.

Since then, Byrd, like other death row inmates before him, has managed to make himself something of a cause celebre. Traditional opponents of the death sentence have rallied around him, including some members of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, which gave him his latest stay.

While his defense lawyers use such gimmicks as suppressing evidence that they now claim as exculpatory, Byrd's gimmick is to demand that the death sentence, if it is to be carried out, be done in the electric chair.

This, Byrd says, will expose the death penalty as a cruel and barbaric punishment. Somehow, we're not inclined to take lessons in what's cruel from a convicted murderer who taunts orphans and threatens widows.

His jailhouse conversion to sensitive soul and conscience of a cruel society is unconvincing. Byrd simply realized that if he didn't change his public posture no power on earth could have saved him from execution.




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