Friday, June 5, 2009

Charges dropped in black man's dragging death

DALLAS – Murder charges were dropped at the prosecution's request Thursday in the dragging death of a black man in east Texas, and the two white men who had been accused of killing him were released from jail.

Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley were released Thursday afternoon in Paris after a judge granted the special prosecutor's motion to dismiss the case. The two men had been charged with fatally striking 24-year-old Brandon McClelland with a pickup truck in September following a late-night beer run the three friends had made to Oklahoma.

The case was hampered by a lack of eyewitnesses and physical evidence. Last month, a gravel truck driver gave a sworn statement acknowledging he might have accidentally run over McClelland.

"After investigation, it has been determined this case should be dismissed in the interests of justice," special prosecutor Toby Shook said. "The decision is about the state of the evidence in the case as it exists today."

Shook said the investigation will continue. The gravel truck driver is unlikely to face charges.

The dismissal was met with incredulity by civil rights activists who had protested how county authorities handled the case.

"His body was dragged and nobody gets charged?" said Brenda Cherry, a Paris resident and the president of Concerned Citizens for Racial Equality. "Even if a trucker came forward, that's all it takes? Even the trucker's not charged?"

Cherry said the decision was "not surprising, but it's sad. It appears that a black man's life means nothing here in Paris."

Finley's trial had been scheduled to begin next month, with Crostley's to follow in September.

"I believed all along there was insufficiency of the evidence," said Ben Massar, Finley's attorney. "The facts in this case did not add up to these two kids being guilty of the charge."

"I think it's very simple," said David Turner, Crostley's lawyer. "These fellows didn't do it."

Finley and Crostley had been unable to post their bonds and had remained in jail since being arrested last year.

"He was very happy. He knew that this was going to happen," Massar said of Finley. "He was a little disappointed it took so long, but he was very grateful."

Authorities have said Finley, Crostley and McClelland were friends who drove across the Oklahoma state line for beer in September. They argued on the way back about whether Finley was too drunk to drive, and McClelland got out of the car to walk home.

Authorities had alleged that Finley then ran down McClelland, whose body was caught under the truck and dragged about 70 feet. His mangled body was found along a country road.

The racial implications of the case reminded some of the murder of James Byrd, who was chained by the ankles to the bumper of a pickup truck and dragged to death in 1998 in the east Texas town of Jasper. Three white men were convicted of killing him; two are on death row and the other is serving a life term.

Turner said McClelland's death "was not motivated by race or any criminal intent. It was just a tragic accident."

The case has drawn protesters from the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party. A rally last year also attracted at least one acknowledged member of the Ku Klux Klan to Paris, about 90 miles northeast of Dallas.

Deric Muhammad, a Nation of Islam member from Houston who helped organize last year's protest, called the dismissal "too see-through, too weak, too cellophane."

"I guess that's just small-town Texas law," Muhammad said.

Other recent events have raised racial tensions in Paris, which is about 73 percent white and 22 percent black.

In 2007, a black girl was sentenced to up to seven years in a juvenile prison for shoving a teacher's aide at school, while a white girl was sentenced by the same judge to probation for burning down her parents' house. This year, two black workers at a pipe fabrication facility in Paris alleged widespread racism and said supervisors failed to respond to complaints about racist graffiti, nooses and slurs.

Shook, the special prosecutor, said he spoke with McClelland's mother to tell her he was dismissing charges. Jacquline McClelland's voicemail box was full, and a friend told The Associated Press she was not at home.

"As you can imagine, Ms. McClelland is very upset over this entire process," Shook said. "She is a very brave woman and she is trying to deal with all these issues. Your heart goes out to her because she has lost her son. She is having to continue to deal with his death and having someone brought to justice in it. It is a frustrating experience."


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