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Texas murder case may be undone

Key evidence and a witness are called into question in a racially charged hit-and-run case in Paris, Texas. The defense is confident of winning an acquittal.

April 14, 2009|Howard Witt

PARIS, TEXAS — Four months after a grand jury indicted two white men in the dragging death of a black man in this racially troubled northeast Texas town, key evidence against the pair appears to be evaporating -- and one defense attorney believes he can win an acquittal when the first case comes to trial in July.

Police have alleged that Shannon Keith Finley and Charles Ryan Crostley, both 28, used Finley's pickup truck to run over and kill Brandon McClelland, 24, on a rural road in September. Finley and Crostley have been charged with murder. Local civil rights activists denounced the killing as a hate crime.

But an initial police claim that investigators found blood on the underside of the pickup has not been confirmed by more thorough forensic testing, special prosecutor Toby Shook said. Early tests failed to verify the presence of any human material or DNA.

"Initial scientific analysis of the truck didn't show anything," Shook said, noting that there was evidence the suspects had washed the truck before it was impounded by investigators. "We are sending it back for further tests," he said.

Moreover, the credibility of a crucial prosecution witness -- to whom police said Finley allegedly confessed details of the killing -- has been called into question.

According to an affidavit, James Mitchell Laster told police that Finley had admitted to intentionally running over McClelland and dragging his body beneath the truck for about 40 feet. But in January 2008, Laster was charged with aggravated assault for allegedly beating Finley. The Lamar County district attorney later dismissed the charge.

"Laster almost killed" Finley, said Ben Massar, Finley's defense attorney. "This guy is not a credible person. He is a violent person."

Finley and Crostley, who say they had been McClelland's friends, have denied any involvement in his death. Finley told police that the pair had picked up McClelland for a late-night beer run and that later, after an argument over Finley's ability to drive safely, McClelland had asked to be let out of the truck so he could walk home. After McClelland's body was discovered, Finley fled to Wichita, Kan., where he was arrested.

Massar said he has an alternative theory of the case to present to the jury when Finley goes on trial.

McClelland's body was found on a two-lane road commonly used by large trucks carrying gravel from a nearby pit, and Massar said the state of the partly dismembered body was consistent with having been struck by a heavy gravel truck traveling at high speed.

"We have two witnesses that will be very good for us -- two guys from Arkansas that came upon the body just moments after they were run off the road by a gravel truck," Massar said. "Look, this case is a tragic situation. The fact that somebody died is difficult to overcome. But we're very confident in this case."

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hwitt@tribune.com

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