PARIS, Texas (AP) — A state district judge granted a change of venue motion Thursday that will move the trials of two white men accused in the death of a black man who authorities said was run over and dragged by a pickup truck. Judge Scott McDowell ruled that defendants Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley will be tried separately in Sulphur Springs in Hopkins County.
The defendants are charged with murder in the death of 24-year-old Brandon McClelland, whose mangled body was found Sept. 16 on a country road after authorities said the three men went on a late-night beer run across the Oklahoma border. McClelland's body was caught beneath a pickup truck and dragged about 70 feet, authorities said.
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.
The judge on Thursday granted Crostley a separate trial from Finley, who was charged with murder in 2003 and eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Finley's attorney in the 2003 case was Gary Young, now the Lamar County district attorney. Young has recused himself from the case, and Dallas lawyer Toby Shook was named special prosecutor.
Crostley has a criminal record that includes several misdemeanor drug convictions but no violent felonies, one of the reasons his lawyer wanted a separate trial. Finley's trial is scheduled for July 20; Crostley's is scheduled for Sept. 21.
The judge postponed a decision on a defense motion to reduce Crostley's bail, which was set at $500,000.
McClelland's mother, Jacquline, was in a courtroom for the first time with her son's accused killers, who were shackled at the wrists and ankles and wore orange jail jumpsuits. The defendants were friends with her son, and she said it was "shocking" to see them again under these circumstances.
"I have no hate in my heart for either of them," she said. "That's not what Brandon would have wanted."
The McClelland case was set to be tried in Paris, a town with a history of tense race relations. The courthouse in Paris was the site of a November rally against the county's judicial system that brought out about 200 protesters, including members of the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam.
The decision to move the trial pleased defense attorneys, who cited extensive pretrial publicity. Finley's attorney, Ben Massar, said community opinion is running against his client, adding that "a lot of people already think they've been convicted."
Crostley's attorney, David Turner, said he believed potential jurors in the area already have made up their minds.
"It was going to be very difficult to find a jury or a group of jurors that didn't have a previous opinion," Turner said. "This is a big deal in Paris, Texas. And it's East Texas, and there is a racial component to it."
Community activists have said McClelland's death is one of many events illustrating racial problems in Paris, which is about 73 percent white and 22 percent black. In 2007, a black girl was sentenced to up to seven years in a juvenile prison hundreds of miles from her home for shoving a teacher's aide at school, while a white girl was sentenced by the same judge to probation for burning down her parents' house. The case drew international media attention.
Across town from the courthouse about an hour after the hearing concluded, civil rights attorneys held a news conference announcing they had filed a class charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination at a Turner Industries pipe fabrication facility that employs about 700 workers in Paris.
Two black workers at the plant have alleged widespread racism and said supervisors have not responded to complaints about racist graffiti, nooses and slurs.
The Louisiana-based company released a statement Thursday saying officials are "greatly concerned about recent accusations of racism at our Paris facility and we have taken steps to address them."
The company has formed an employee task force, hired an attorney to conduct an independent investigation and boosted training to maintain workplace standards, according to the release.
"Any alleged misconduct goes against everything we stand for at Turner Industries ... and such behavior will not be tolerated" the company announced in the statement.
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