PARIS, Texas (AP) _ A day after murder charges were dropped in the racially charged dragging death of a black man in east Texas, both a former suspect and the victim’s mother expressed outrage, for very different reasons.
Shannon Finley said Friday that he resents months of being portrayed as a racist responsible for killing Brandon McClelland, a close friend for more than a decade. Jacquline McClelland said the dropped charges show that the justice system treats blacks and whites in Paris unequally.
“I said from the start they were going to sweep this under the rug,” she said. “And nine months later, that’s exactly what happened.”
Finley and Charles Crostley, who are white, were freed Thursday after a prosecutor dropped the murder charges against them, citing a lack of evidence.
They 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 men made to Oklahoma. His mangled body, which authorities estimate was dragged beneath a vehicle for at least 70 feet, was found on a country road outside Paris, about 90 miles northeast of Dallas.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Finley, 28, reiterated his innocence and blamed authorities for what he called a rush to judgment.
“You look at the picture they painted,” Finley said of law enforcement officials. “It was of two racist killers. It was a real bad horror story and they put us as the main characters in it.”
The racial implications of the case reminded some of the murder of James Byrd Jr., who was chained by the ankles to a pickup and dragged to death in 1998 in the east Texas town of Jasper.
The McClelland case last year attracted about 200 protesters, many of them from the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party. Activists are promising another rally on Monday.
Finley’s small Dodge Dakota pickup was tested in a lab three times, but no biological evidence was found, his attorney Ben Massar said. It also sustained no damage or dents, despite being the vehicle authorities allege struck the nearly 300-pound McClelland.
Jacquline McClelland, however, said Finley and Crostley visited her the day of her son’s death, and that there was a dent on the hood of Finley’s truck.
“(Finley) had his head down and was shaking it and said, `Things just got out of hand,”’ she said of the visit. “I am hurt. I am angry. Justice ain’t on my side.”
Last month, a gravel truck driver gave a sworn statement acknowledging he might have accidentally run over Brandon McClelland. Special prosecutor Toby Shook said it was unlikely the trucker would face charges, but that the investigation would continue.
The trucker’s attorney, Mike Mosher, said his client was given immunity regarding his sworn statement and “didn’t know he hit anyone.” He said the trucker does not know any of three men.
McClelland’s mother said she believes Finley and Crostley are guilty. Brenda Cherry, a Paris resident and president of Concerned Citizens for Racial Equality, said authorities should prosecute the truck driver.
“If the trucker did it, so be it,” she said. “But he has to be prosecuted.”
Finley _ sitting Friday with his father, his attorney and the attorney’s investigator _ provided a detailed account of his last day and night with McClelland.
He said the trio had been drinking heavily for much of the night, and had mixed alcohol with marijuana and prescription drugs. After leaving their dry Texas county and buying beer across the Oklahoma line, they argued about whether Finley was too drunk and high to drive.
Finley said he was unwilling to let anyone else drive his truck. After a heated argument, McClelland got out of the truck several miles from town and declared he would walk home.
Finley and Crostley left him on the side of the road, returning once to attempt to persuade him to get back in. McClelland refused, so they continued home, Finley said.
Later that morning, Finley said he and Crostley learned of McClelland’s death.
“I’ve known Brandon since I was 15 and he was about 12 or 13,” Finley said. “We have been best friends every day pretty much since. We didn’t hang out one day a week. We hung out four or five days a week.”
After McClelland died, Finley left town for Kansas. He was arrested there and eventually extradited to Texas, circumstances that led to accusations that he had fled the state.
Finley said he gave a voluntary statement to authorities, told them he was traveling to Kansas and gave them his cell phone number. He said he was there to “clear my head” after his best friend’s death and that he feared for his safety.
Defense investigator Ray Ball said Finley left town after a group of McClelland’s friends cornered him and Crostley and threatened to kill them.
This is not the first time Finley was linked to a friend’s death. He was charged with murder in 2003 and eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to four years.
In that case, McClelland pleaded guilty to perjury for providing a false alibi for Finley. He was sentenced to five years’ probation but served some jail time when he violated its terms.
Paris, which is about 73 percent white and 22 percent black, has recently been the scene of other incidents in which race was alleged to have been a factor.
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.
Pictured above is Brandon McClelland.