New evidence in dragging death case

May 16, 2009 3:53:20 AM PDT
New evidence shows a gravel truck driver may have accidentally run over a black man on an East Texas country road, an attorney for one of the two white men accused of murder in the racially charged case said Friday. The trucker provided a sworn videotaped statement acknowledging that he might have accidentally run down 24-year-old Brandon McClelland in September, defense attorney Ben Massar said.

According to Massar, the driver said he was on the same road around the time of McClelland's death and remembers striking something. He said the driver pulled over several miles later to check his tires for a blowout. In his statement, the driver said plastic flowers left as a memorial at the site where McClelland's body was found is near where he recalls hitting something, Massar said.

Witnesses who came across McClelland's body in the early hours of Sept. 16 have said they passed a gravel truck driving in the opposite direction.

Massar declined to identify the driver or allow The Associated Press to view his statement.

The driver's attorney, Mike Mosher, said he was working on an agreement to grant his client immunity so the man could be interviewed by prosecutors. Mosher on Friday night declined to release further details to AP about the driver.

Special prosecutor Toby Shook was not present for the statement, Massar said. Shook also did not return a message left by The AP.

"The driver said he felt something that moved the back of the trailer, that it felt like a blowout," Massar said. "The timing is very consistent with Mr. McClelland's death and consistent with other statements from other witnesses."

Massar said the defense team's investigators, Ray Ball and Jim Chadwick, tracked down the driver and that he acknowledged his concern that he might have hit McClelland. The developments were first reported in The Paris News.

"He always thought he might have, but in the back of his mind he didn't want to believe it," Massar said. "He is a hardworking man -- no criminal history whatsoever."

Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley face murder charges in McClelland's death. They will be tried separately beginning in July, when Finley's trial begins in Sulphur Springs. The trial was moved because of extensive pretrial publicity.

Authorities said Finley, Crostley and McClelland were friends and went on a late-night beer run across the Oklahoma border. 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.

Protesters have said the case is reminiscent of the East Texas dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper 11 years ago. The racially charged case has brought protesters from the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party to Paris -- as well as at least one acknowledged member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Massar, who is Finley's attorney, has said the lack of physical evidence and eyewitnesses indicates the prosecution's "weak case." Repeated forensic testing on Finley's truck has revealed no biological evidence, although Shook has said the suspects washed the vehicle before testing.

"I feel very confident about this case," Massar said. "I believe Mr. Finley is innocent."

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