Texas prosecutors say they still plan to take to trial a racially charged murder case against two white men accused of running down a black man with a pickup truck, even though they have no physical evidence or eyewitnesses linking the suspects to the crime.
Special prosecutor Toby Shook said this week that forensic testing on the undercarriage of the pickup truck owned by one of the defendants turned up no DNA belonging to the victim.
"But that's not a surprise, considering it had been thoroughly washed," Shook said. Police contend the defendants cleaned the vehicle at a car wash after the incident.
Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley are accused in the death of 24-year-old Brandon McClelland, whose mangled body was found Sept. 16 on a country road near the East Texas town of Paris.
Body dragged about 70 feet
Authorities said McClelland died after the three friends went on a late-night beer run across the Oklahoma line. They argued on the way back about whether Finley was too drunk to drive, and McClelland got out of the car to walk home. Authorities allege that Finley then ran down McClelland, whose body was caught under the truck and dragged about 70 feet.
Ben Massar, Finley's attorney, said the lack of physical evidence indicates the prosecution's "weak case." He also questioned the credibility of one of the witnesses whom police relied on in preparing a search warrant affidavit. That witness told police Finley had confessed to running over McClelland.
"Each day, I am getting more confident that Shannon Finley is not guilty," Massar said. "In the interest of justice, I am hoping this is dismissed prior to trial."
Shook and Massar said there has been no discussion of a plea deal or dismissing charges.
"I am confident in our case and look forward to presenting the evidence to a jury," Shook said.
Finley's trial is scheduled for July 20 and Crostley's for Sept. 21. They will be tried about 40 miles south of Paris in Sulphur Springs because of extensive pretrial publicity.
History of tense race relations
McClelland's family and others have alleged that his death was racially motivated and compared it to the notorious dragging death of James Byrd 11 years ago in Jasper, another East Texas town. Byrd was chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged about three miles.
Paris, which is about 73 percent white and 22 percent black, has a history of tense race relations.
Local activists have alleged unequal treatment for blacks in the judicial system, highlighted by a 2007 case in which a black girl was sentenced to up to seven years in a juvenile prison for shoving a teacher's aide. Meanwhile, the same judge sentenced a white girl to probation for burning down her parents' house.
Last month, civil rights attorneys held a news conference after two black workers at a pipe fabrication facility alleged widespread racism and said supervisors have not responded to complaints about racist graffiti, nooses and slurs.