Revolution #173, August 16, 2009

Paris, Texas—Modern-Day Lynching, Age-Old Outrage

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging...”

—Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row.” 1965

Paris, Texas, has an infamous place in American history. In 1893, it was the first place to hold a public, organized, and widely advertised lynching of a Black man.

Henry Smith was accused of killing and assaulting the three-year-old daughter of a Paris cop, despite the complete lack of evidence, witnesses, or clues. Smith was captured in Arkansas and brought back to Paris on a train. Thousands of whites gathered at each stop as a brutally beaten Smith was displayed before the mobs.

When he got to Paris, about 10,000 people who had come in trains from Dallas and other cities were awaiting the savage spectacle of Smith’s lynching. Henry Smith was paraded through Paris on a carnival float and taken to the prairie outside town. There he was placed on a scaffold and tortured for almost an hour by the cop and his family. They drove hot iron brands into his flesh, starting with his feet and working upwards.

An article in the New York Sun reported that “every groan from the fiend [this refers to Smith, not to his tormentors], every contortion of his body was cheered by the thickly packed crowd. Eventually, the hot irons were thrust into his eye sockets and down his throat.” Somehow, Henry Smith was still breathing. The mob poured oil on him and set him on fire. Brawls then broke out as the participants in the lynching fought to collect Henry Smith’s bones, ashes, and teeth as “souvenirs.”

Flash forward 115 years.

September 16, 2008. Early on a Sunday morning, the disfigured and partially dismembered body of a young Black man, Brandon McClelland, was found in a remote area of Lamar County, Texas, just outside Paris.

Police immediately announced that Brandon had been the victim of a hit and run driver. But some of the true story of his brutal murder soon began to come out.

Two white men, Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley, had driven across the state line to Oklahoma that night with Brandon, on a “beer run.” When they returned to Paris, Brandon got out of the truck and said he was walking home.

The men in the truck ran over Brandon as he was walking down the country road. When he fell under the truck, they dragged his body back and forth along the road. They continued doing this until the mangled, mutilated body of Brandon McClellan came free from the truck’s chassis. They probably poured two cans of beer over Brandon’s body. Then they left to try to wash Brandon’s blood off their truck.

As news of Brandon’s death reached town, anger and anguish rippled through the Black communities of Paris and Lamar County. People were reminded of the lynching by truck of James Byrd 10 years earlier in Jasper, another Texas town several hours south of Paris—three white supremacists had been convicted for the murder of James Byrd. The McClelland family said that Brandon’s murder was a “Jasper style lynching.”

Protests demanding prosecution of the two killers rocked Paris last autumn, as hundreds of people, organized by the Houston chapters of the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, traveled to Paris. Finley and Crostley were both arrested and charged with murder and tampering with evidence.

But Stacy McNeal, the Texas Ranger in charge of the “investigation,” almost immediately announced that he didn’t “see how it was racial.” And in June 2009, “special prosecutor” Toby Shook dropped all charges against Finley and Crostley, citing a “lack of evidence.” The two killers were freed without restriction.

The Crime and the Cover-up

According to an Associated Press report, “Finley’s  estranged wife and one of his friends said they had been told by the two defendants that Finley began to bump McClelland with the front of his truck until McClelland fell, and Finley drove over him, according to court papers. Crostley and Finley then allegedly drove to a car wash to clean off the blood.”

As Brandon’s mother, Jacqueline McClelland, said, “they tied my son to that truck and dragged him until his body parts were detached. His body was so destroyed that it could not even be embalmed by the funeral home. This is a hate crime.… This was not a hit and run. They [Finley, Crostley, and their families] hid the truck and even tried to wash the blood off. The police didn’t even tape off the crime scene and some of my son’s body parts were still lying out there. This is just like Jasper.”

Jesse Muhammed, a reporter for the Final Call newspaper who traveled to Paris from Houston in early October of 2008—a couple of weeks after Brandon McClelland’s murder—wrote that “We went to the scene of the crime in Lamar County. You would not believe that parts of Brandon McClelland’s skull was still out there on the ground! Shows how much the police cared. It was like an episode of CSI:NY with blood tracks up and down the road and tire marks chased by the blood trails. This was one of the most painful stories I have had to cover in person.”

But authorities moved quickly to conceal and cover up evidence of Brandon’s murder. In the affidavit filed for the arrests of Finley and Crostley, authorities said they observed human blood on the bottom chassis of Finley’s truck. But later lab reports claimed that there was no “biological evidence” on the truck. Jacqueline McClelland said “one minute you’ve got evidence and the next minute you don’t? Now nobody is charged in my son’s murder. It’s just cruel and unjust.”

Ms. McClelland told the Dallas Morning News that “beer cans were lying out there [where Brandon died], but the police didn’t even pick them up, they just left evidence out there. They won’t even consider the racial issues. That’s the way it is in Paris.”

An autopsy report signed by 10 medical examiners of the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science at Dallas said that the “initial investigation suggested that the blunt force injuries sustained were the result of an accidental hit-and-run. However, additional investigation and developments in the case indicate that the decedent was intentionally run over with a truck.”

The report further states that “therefore, based upon the autopsy findings and the history available to us, it is our opinion that Brandon Demon McClelland, a 24-year-old black male, died as a result of blunt force injuries.”

The “prosecutor” with overall responsibility for the case of Finley and Crostley, Lamar County D.A. Gary Young, had been Finley’s defense attorney five years earlier when Finley was charged with manslaughter for shooting his “best friend” to death. Finley claimed that he and his friend were being robbed by two Black men. There was no evidence for his claim, and Finley named or described no suspects except to say that they were “2 Black men.” No one was arrested, much less charged with this supposed attempted robbery. Finley said he aimed poorly when he shot at the alleged robbers and hit his friend in the head—three times. Young was able to get a reduced sentence of three years for Finley in that case.

Young was compelled to recuse himself from direct involvement in the trial of Finley and Crostley, and a “special prosecutor” was appointed. It was this prosecutor, Toby Shook, a prosecutor in the Dallas County D.A.’s office, who announced that the charges against Finley and Crostley had been dropped, citing what he outrageously called a “lack of evidence.” Jacqueline McClelland summed up the maneuvers of the prosecutors accurately when she said, “I feel like everyone is trying to get these guys off.”

The ugly and deep history of the oppression of Black people in this country is thoroughly embedded in every aspect and every place of this society, but in few locations is it so brazenly on display as in Paris. A monument to Confederate veterans is the centerpiece of the town square. Paris achieved some notoriety last year when 14-year-old Shaquanda Cotton, a Black girl, was given a seven year prison sentence for shoving a hall monitor in her school, while the judge who sentenced her had given a white girl the same age as Shaquanda probation for burning down her parents’ home. Earlier this year, nooses, Confederate flags, and racist graffiti were flaunted for months at a pipe fabrication plant that is the town’s largest employer. As a man said at one of the protests demanding justice for Brandon, “I am 55 years old, and I know racism when I see it. Paris, Texas, is eaten up with racism.”

Much of the long-standing anger at this oppression has burst forth in recent months. The savage murder of Brandon McClelland has become a catalyst for the outrage many people, especially youth, have at the abuse to which they are constantly subjected. Protests of hundreds of people have demanded justice for Brandon McClelland, and the prosecution of Finley and Crostley. The state of Texas has responded by refusing to prosecute.

It was over one hundred years ago that the first openly organized public lynching of a Black man in the U.S. took place in Paris, Texas. Since that time, promises of change in America have been made again and again, only to be broken again and again. Here we are in 2009, and the men who murdered Brandon McClelland are still walking the streets. It is way past time that the system lets such murderers go free without the people waging determined political resistance. JUSTICE FOR BRANDON MCCLELLAND!

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