Here’s Howard Witt’s take on the death of Brandon McClelland death in Paris. The of sweeping details under the rug are headed towards a needed end. I’ll have more on Monday.
When the mutilated and partially dismembered body of
McClelland, a 24-year-old black man, turned up lying in the middle of a rural east
hit-and-run by an unknown driver.
Within a few days, however, suspicions turned toward two white friends who had
picked up McClelland in their truck a few hours before he was found dead early on
Sept. 16. Despite signs that the truck had been washed, authorities discovered blood
and other physical evidence on the undercarriage and arrested the two men, both with
long criminal histories, for murder.
Now this small, racially divided town–already seared with a racist label by civil
rights groups last year over differences in how blacks and whites were treated by
the local justice system–is on edge yet again, wondering if it’s got a horrific new
hate crime on its hands.
The district attorney insists race had nothing to do with McClelland’s death and
police investigators are portraying the case as an apparent falling-out among
But McClelland’s relatives and
the violence done to McClelland’s body and reports that one of the alleged
assailants, Shannon Finley, had white supremacist ties, they are demanding that
1998 lynching of James Byrd Jr., in Jasper, Texas, 250 miles south of here.
Byrd was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck by three white supremacists who
were later convicted of murder. McClelland was walking in front of the pickup when
Finley, 27, and a friend, Charles Ryan Crostley, 27, who was also arrested,
allegedly ran him down and then dragged him 40 feet along the road until his
mutilated body popped out from beneath the chassis, according to a police affidavit
accompanying the warrant for Finley’s arrest.
“If you take somebody out to the country like that in the middle of the night and do
that to him in that way, that’s how they do black people around here,” said Brenda
Cherry, a local activist working with McClelland’s family. “To me, it smells like
Tribune reported the case of Shaquanda Cotton, a 14-year-old African-American youth
who was sentenced by a local judge to up to seven years in a youth prison for
shoving a hall monitor at her high school. Just three months earlier, the same judge
had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation after convicting her of the more
serious crime of arson for burning down her family’s house.
The discrepancy in the treatment of the two teenagers provoked protests from
national civil rights groups and led to Cotton’s early release from prison. Now
McClelland’s family fears that
26,000 from another round of negative publicity over race relations, are
purposefully downplaying potential racial overtones in McClelland’s murder.
“At the crime scene, it looked like these boys went back and poured beer on my son’s
body,” said Jacqueline McClelland,
there, but the police didn’t even pick them up, they just left evidence out there.
They won’t even consider the racial issues. That’s the way it is in
Even the editor of the local newspaper, normally an impassioned defender of
reputation, has cautioned law enforcement officials to be thorough and “leave no
stone unturned” in their investigation.
“Hopefully, this community has learned from its past,” Mary Madewell wrote in the
actions of single individuals should in no way bring condemnation to an entire
Family members and other critics are also concerned about the impartiality of Lamar
County District Atty. Gary Young, who five years ago, before he was elected
prosecutor, served as Finley’s court-appointed defense attorney when Finley pleaded
guilty to manslaughter for shooting a friend to death.
Young has declined to state whether he will recuse himself and other prosecutors in
his office from handling the McClelland case.
Although the victim in Finley’s 2003 manslaughter case was white, race played a role
in the incident. Finley told police he was sitting in a pickup with his friend in a
park when two gun-wielding black men supposedly walked up alongside and tried to rob
them. Finley said he grabbed his friend’s handgun and fired at the robbers, but
instead shot his friend.
An autopsy determined that the victim suffered three gunshot wounds to the head, but
the district attorney at the time accepted Finley’s contention that the shooting was
an accident and offered him a plea bargain on a reduced manslaughter charge. Finley
served three years of a 4-year prison sentence. The alleged robbers were never
That manslaughter case also tied Finley and McClelland closely together. McClelland
furnished a false alibi for Finley, testifying before a grand jury that Finley was
with him at the time the shooting occurred. That lie under oath earned McClelland a
conviction for aggravated perjury, for which he served two years in prison.
Largely because of that connection between McClelland and Finley, police discount
the possibility that race played a part in McClelland’s death. “I don’t see how it
was racial, being as how they were good friends,” said Stacy McNeal, the
Ranger who is the lead investigator on the case.
But McClelland’s relatives say they have heard that Finley fell in with white
supremacists while in prison and that he had grown upset over
a white girl–factors they say the police ought to investigate.
“I always told
said Ervin Barry, a friend of McClelland’s. “But
Race relations in
SHAQUANDA COTTON: The black high school freshman whose sentence of up to seven years
in prison for shoving a school hall monitor drew national scrutiny to the town’s
justice system was released from prison in March 2007. Now 17, she is studying for
her GED certificate and hopes to attend junior college.
TASK FORCE: Citizens concerned about racial fissures in town exposed by the Cotton
case convened a local Diversity Task Force, which has held several meetings and last
month hosted a community-wide block party attended by several hundred residents.
INVESTIGATION: The U.S. Department of Education last month concluded a two-year
investigation of allegedly discriminatory disciplinary policies in the
schools. The agency said it found “insufficient evidence to support a conclusion”
that black students were being disciplined more harshly than whites.