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Bitterness and anger remains at a boiling point over two months after friends, family and supporters learned the fate of Brandon McClelland, the 24-year-old African- American killed in a case similar to the infamous James Byrd murder that took place in Jasper 10 years ago. Participants at two protest rallies and a town hall meeting held Monday displayed strong resentment toward the Lamar County District Attorney's office regarding their resistance to call the case a hate crime.
Over 200 protestors demonstrated in front of the Lamar County Courthouse Monday afternoon and later at a similar rally held in Clarksville, 30 miles east of Paris. The day culminated with a town hall meeting, held at the Kingdom Harvest Full Gospel Baptist Church in downtown Paris.
"There's something really wrong here in Paris, Texas," said town hall moderator Krystal Muhammad, a representative of the Houston Chapter of the New Black Panther Party. "We know that this was clear intentional homicide. We have to put enough pressure from today moving forward that we demand that these young men be charged with a hate crime. Don't just try to sweep it under the rug."
McClelland's body was found on a county farm road northeast of Paris, a city 100 miles northeast of Dallas with approximately 26,000 residents. Authorities first ruled the case an accidental hit-and-run before investigators reported that McClelland was struck and run over by a truck and dragged about 70 feet, tearing his body apart. Pieces of his skull were found days later.
Charles Ryan Crostley and Shannon Keith Finley, supposed friends of McClelland, were later arrested. The Grand Jury hearing on McClelland's case, according to Muhammad, is scheduled for Dec. 11.
Affidavits revealed that the three were making a friendly beer run across the Oklahoma borderline when an argument ensued. The Lamar County District Attorney's office stopped short of ruling the killing a racist hate crime, citing the longtime friendship between McClelland, Crostley and Finley, the focal point that has McClelland's supporters angry.
"I couldn't believe that two White boys can run over a Black man, drag him 70 feet and tear him apart like a vicious animal. If this isn't a hate crime, there isn't a hate crime in America," said Anthony Bond, a co-founder and former president of the Irving NAACP.
"It needs to be declared a hate crime because [that's what] it was," said Derrick Muhammad, of Houston, who was in Paris representing the Nation of Islam. "The record needs to reflect that Black people were emancipated from slavery in the 1800s and not very much has changed. If Brandon McClelland went through this, the same thing that our forefathers went through in this county 150 years ago, that means we need new leadership in this county because the present leadership cannot and will not work."
Tevin McCleary, Brandon's brother, saw McClelland, his wife and the two offenders playing basketball the evening before his death, but disputed the ruling that McClelland's death could not be ruled a hate crime because the three were friends.
Dallas-based attorney Darryl Washington, representing McClelland's family, drew a parallel between McClelland's death and the sentencing of NFL player Michael Vick on dogfighting charges.
"We should not be living in a society where dogs are given more rights than an African American male," Washington said. "It could have easily been one of us. We're going to make sure that this legal system is transparent. We're going to make sure that this family is treated right and that justice is served."
Washington also cited alleged cases of inconsistencies with Lamar County's criminal justice system. Finley, was charged with murder in 2003 for the fatal shooting of a friend, a killing, according to Krystal Muhammad, where he first blamed three Blacks. He eventually pleaded and was found guilty on manslaughter charges, serving four years in prison. In that same case, according to the Associated Press, McClelland perjured himself on behalf of Finley, was convicted and sentenced to five year's probation, but served some jail time for violating his terms.
Lamar County District Attorney Gary Young was Finley's attorney. He recused himself from McClelland's case. A judge, then, appointed former Dallas County assistant district attorney Toby Shook as special prosecutor. Shook ran for district attorney, but lost to Craig Watkins in 2006.
The Paris branch of the NAACP was heavily criticized by several people at the town hall meeting for not being present, along with allegedly not doing enough to pressure the D.A.'s office to rule McClelland's death a hate crime.
"We have to stay on one accord," said Bond, reprimanding the NAACP. "We cannot let these White and Black people, in collusion together, separate and divide us."
The Paris NAACP, led by president, Dr. Joann Ondrovik, released a Nov. 3 statement, expressing their condolences to McClelland's family and calling for justice in his case.
''We understand that nothing can restore the life of Brandon McClelland, but we refuse to tolerate a death based on racial hatred," the release stated. "Therefore, we expect and demand that the death of Brandon McClelland be investigated diligently, that the motives of the suspects be carefully examined and that the evidence in the case be faithfully followed for a determination of the existence of racial hatred as a motive in his violent death.
"Any death resulting from a criminal act is reprehensible; however, a criminal act motivated by racial or cultural hatred should find no justification in the laws of man, nor should it seek sanctuary in the soul of our community. Criminal behavior, particularly a violent murder that raises the suspicion of racial bigotry, calls for a united and passionate, no-tolerance, community response combined with dedicated efforts to seek evidence, to comfort the victim and to present facts as opposed to opinions, so that the appropriate verdict is sought."
Representatives from local and Dallas area churches did appear at the town hall meeting. Carmelita Pope Freeman, Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service also attended, but was not ready to make a statement.
The tragic death for the McCleary family, represents not just racial hatred, but the loss that perhaps only time and justice can heal.
Ernest McCleary, Brandon's grandfather, remembered speaking to him via telephone around midnight, assessing that friends do not commit such a heinous crime to another friend.
"I want them to die the same way they did to my grandson. Let them see how Brandon McClelland suffered," McCleary said.
Still, they know that even justice cannot bring their loved one back.
Tevin McCleary said, "I just remembered telling him I loved him for the last time."