This is one of those cases that makes me want to take my Criminal Law & Criminal Procedure textbooks off the shelf, march down to the courthouse in east Texas, sit the prosecutor, judge and defense attorney down like kindergartners, open up to chapter one and start taking folks to school. In fact, the only thing more infuriating about this case than the failed manner in which it has been handled is the very peculiar yet painfully obvious manner in which it has NOT received national press attention. So pardon me for a moment while I spread the word.
Many of you might recall the national news headlines back in 1998 about then 49-year-old James Byrd, Jr., a black man in Jasper, Texas, who was dragged to death from the back of a pickup truck by three white men: Shawn Allen Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John William King. Those three men were subsequently convicted of murder and are serving life sentences in jail; two are on death row. Unfortunately, this is not even the story I'm referring to above.
No I'm talking about the other black man who was dragged to death from a pickup truck in Texas. Texas seems to have a thing about black men and pickup trucks. What's that about anyway?
At any rate, in September of 2008, the two white men pictured above, Charles Crostley (L) and Shannon Finley (R), of Paris, Texas (a town about 90 miles northeast of Dallas) decided to go on a beer run to Oklahoma with the black male victim, 24-year-old Brandon McClelland. The three young men knew each other from Paris, Texas. Somewhere along the way back from the beer run, according to Crostley and Finley, an argument ensued, and Brandon got out of the truck to walk home. At that time, according to police reports, Finley (who was driving) turned the truck around and ran over Brandon, dragging his body underneath the pickup truck for over 70 feet. The remains of Brandon's body were later found by the road in question. The two men were subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Brandon McClelland.
Then, in an interesting twist of events, 8 months later (May 2009) a truck driver came to authorities and said that he might have accidental ran over Brandon on the road. It is unclear if he meant that he ran over Brandon as Brandon was walking down the street, or if he meant that he ran over Brandon's body that was left by the side of the road after Finley had already driven over him. In any event, the Prosecutor*1 who's name I would also like to mention for the record, Mr. Toby Shook, a graduate of the Texas Tech School of Law who quit the Prosecutor's office and now works for a criminal defense law firm, said "[a]fter investigation, it has been determined this case should be dismissed in the interests of justice." Shook then added that "[t]he decision [to dismiss the case] is about the state of the evidence in the case as it exists today." It is notable to observe that the case was also dismissed against the truck driver as well, who actually was never charged with any crime in the first place. No, I'm not making this up.
So to recap, a 24-year-old black kid is clearly run over and killed by somebody's truck, (bodies usually don't drag themselves down the street on their own) and the obvious legal response to such a crime, as Shook understands it, is to round up any and all suspects and then...let everybody go?
By the way, if any of you are interested in earning a cracker jack box law degree with very little studying, go see the people in admissions over at Texas Tech School of Law. I hear they have plenty of openings. (*joking of course but you see my frustration*)
Texas Penal Code Title 5, Chapter 19.01 defines homicide as follows: "A person commits criminal homicide if he intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence causes the death of an individual. Criminal homicide is murder, capital murder, manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide."
The subsequent sections further define each sub-group of homicide and list the elements that, when satisfied, require a prosecutor to file the appropriate charge of homicide against the suspect or suspects in question. When I hear this case, murder, manslaughter, and possibly negligent homicide all come to mind, yet you're telling me that none of these charges are applicable in the current case? Moreover, I find it extremely difficult to believe that there is a lack of physical evidence, as the prosecution claims here, when you have a dead body, spatters of blood that can be detected, and vehicles that can be inspected. Surely, in 2009, with all of our great CSI gadgets and gizmos, some modicum of evidence exists that would connect Brandon's DNA with somebody's truck.
The prosecutor stated that the case should be dismissed "in the interest of justice." I submit that this statement could not be further from the truth. The "interest of justice" requires the state of Texas, acting through the prosecutor's office as its agent, to protect the citizens of Texas against crimes such as these. To act otherwise, as the prosecution has done here, is not only a slap in the face to the parents and family members of Brandon McClelland, it is also a slap in the face of justice.
*1. On November 13, 2008 McCelland's family members, along with the New Black Panther Party, called for the original prosecutor, Lamar County and District Attorney Gary Young, to recuse himself from the case because Mr. Young served in 2003 as a court-appointed public defender for Shannon Finley, the driver of the pickup truck alleged to have run over and killed Brandon McClelland. Since there was a conflict of interest, Mr. Young recused himself from the case and was replaced by Toby Shook, who I lambasted above. On a very important side note, it appears Shannon Finley has a bit of a violent record. In that case back in 2003, Finley was charged with murder and he eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter for fatally shooting a friend of his in the head. He served four years in prison over the incident. It would appear that Shannon Finley has a little bit of a hard time resisting the urge to kill his "friends."