PARIS, Texas (AP) _ Protesters galvanized by a dragging death that stirred memories of the notorious James Byrd case rallied outside an East Texas courthouse Monday to speak out against a justice system they consider racist.
About 60 people, led by a contingent from the New Black Panther Party, met at the Lamar County Courthouse to bring attention to the death of Brandon McClelland. Authorities have said two suspects, both of them white, purposely ran over and killed McClelland, a black man, following an argument on the way home from a late-night beer run in September.
McClelland's body was dragged about 70 feet beneath a pickup truck and dismembered by the trauma near Paris, a city about 95 miles northeast of Dallas with a history of tense relationships between blacks and whites.
The death came 10 years after Byrd was killed in Jasper, another East Texas town. Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for three miles.
“How do we get justice for Brandon McClelland?'' cried Anthony Bond, founder of the Irving chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“We can't get justice for Brandon,'' answered another man. “He's dead.''
Authorities have disputed that racism was the motivation for McClelland's death, citing the victim's decade-long friendship with the two suspects. They also point out that McClelland was run over and not chained to the back of a truck, as Byrd was.
That stance angered McClelland's mother and activists, who pressured Lamar County and District Attorney Gary Young to step aside in part because he once was the court-appointed defense attorney for one of the suspects.
That suspect, Shannon Finley, was charged with murder in 2003 for the fatal shooting of a friend. He eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter with Young as his counsel. Finley served four years in prison.
In that same case, McClelland pleaded guilty to perjury for providing a false alibi for Finley's whereabouts on the night of the shooting. He was sentenced to five years' probation but served some jail time when he violated its terms, prosecutor Bill Harris said.
Young has recused himself from the McClelland case, citing his past association with Finley. A judge has appointed former Dallas County assistant DA Toby Shook as special prosecutor.
Sitting mostly alone away from the speakers, McClelland's mother said she was attending “to see that justice gets done for my son.'' She blamed Young for Finley's short sentence.
“If he had done the right thing, I'm positive my son would be alive today,'' Jacquline McClelland said.
Young spokesman Allan Hubbard declined to comment.
The protest, held just around the corner from a 20-foot tall Confederate war memorial statue dedicated to “Our Heroes,'' attracted about a dozen white onlookers who watched from the parking lot about 30 yards away.
Rock Banks, whose arms were covered in sleeves of tattoos, identified himself as a grand titan in the East Texas Ku Klux Klan. He wore a baseball cap depicting a skull wearing a cowboy hat set against a Confederate flag. He explained that his “boss sent me here'' to keep an eye on the protest.
“People come from outside and start trouble and leave this place stewing,'' Banks said. “If those two boys killed that man, they should get what they deserve. But it ain't got nothing to do with Jasper.''
David Stewart, who said he owns a business in Paris, handed out a flyer saying that the New Black Panther Party is a racist organization.
“The Black Panthers have no business being here when they are racist themselves,'' Stewart said. “They are labeling us as racists because of a couple isolated incidents.''