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Texas dragging death raises racial tensions

Some see parallel to '98 hate crime

By Jeff Carlton
Associated Press / October 25, 2008
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PARIS, Texas - In a gruesome case with powerful echoes of the dragging death of James Byrd a decade ago, a black man was killed underneath a pickup truck in East Texas and two white men have been charged with murder.

Black activists and the victim's mother are calling last month's killing of 24-year-old Brandon McClelland a racist attack, and investigators are looking into the possibility that one of the defendants was a member of a white supremacist prison gang.

McClelland died after going with two white acquaintances on a late-night beer run to Oklahoma, investigators said. Authorities said he was run over and dragged as much as 70 feet beneath the truck. His torn-apart body was discovered along a bloodstained rural road Sept. 16.

The case has raised racial tensions in Paris, a town of 26,000 with a history of fraught relations between blacks and whites.

To some, it sounds like the Byrd case of 1998, in which a black man in the East Texas town of Jasper, about 200 miles south of Paris, was chained by the ankles to the back of a pickup truck by three white supremacists and dragged for three miles. Two of the killers are now on death row; the third is serving a life sentence.

Prosecutors in the McClelland case said they are looking into whether one of the defendants, Shannon Keith Finley, was in a white supremacist gang while in prison for killing a friend.

But they said they have seen no evidence so far that McClelland's slaying was racially motivated. And they noted the three men had been friends for years.

"This is a group of guys who had black friends and white friends," said Allan Hubbard, a spokesman for the Lamar County district attorney's office. He added: "Any comparison to Jasper and James Byrd is preposterous."

Autopsy results are expected next week, and while investigators don't believe McClelland was tied to the truck, they will look closely for marks on the body that would indicate whether McClelland was tied to the vehicle. If prosecutors determine the killing was motivated by racial prejudice, they will seek to increase the punishment if they win a conviction, the prosecutor said.

Community activist Brenda Cherry said authorities have not seriously considered the possibility that this was a hate crime. "There's a problem in Paris, Texas," she said. "I don't see a difference in getting dragged behind a truck and getting dragged under a truck."

A flier inviting people to a memorial service for McClelland today said he was "the victim of a brutal and racist hate crime." The New Black Panthers met with investigators and held a news conference at the courthouse promising to examine the killing.

"I truly feel that race played a part in it," said the victim's mother, Jacquline McClelland. "It is a racist town, and Paris has always been a racist town."

According to court papers, Finley and Charles Ryan Crostley, both 27, told police they left the dry town to get beer in Oklahoma, and on the way back, the three men, all apparently drunk, argued about who was sober enough to drive. McClelland, an unmarried maintenance worker, decided to walk home, the men told police.

But Finley's estranged wife and one of his friends said they had been told by the two defendants that Finley began to bump McClelland with the front of his truck until McClelland fell, and Finley drove over him, according to court papers.

Crostley and Finley are jailed on charges of murder and evidence-tampering. Finley's attorney did not immediately return a message. Calls to Crostley's lawyer were not answered.

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