Monday, October 27, 2008

An 'I Really Really Like You Crime'?

In new TV cop show Life on Mars, the main character (played by Jason O'Mara) is a modern-day officer who inexplicably time travels back to 1973 where he finds himself working in the NYPD homicide unit. In the most recent episode, while investigating the killing of a veteran back from Vietnam who turned out to be gay, the time traveling cop declared to his boss, played by Harvey Keitel, "See, I told you it was a hate crime."

Obviously unfamiliar with the term that wouldn't be coined until years later, Keitel's character brilliantly replied, "As opposed to an 'I really really like you crime'?"

I couldn't help but recall that scene upon reading press coverage about a murder last month in Paris, Texas where a black man was allegedly run over and dragged to death by two white guys in a pickup truck, an incident that's being compared in the press to the infamous dragging death of James Byrd in Jasper. The victim's mother called it a "hate crime" and the Dallas News' coverage even included a sidebar documenting historic lynchings in Paris and northeast Texas going back to the 19th Century.

But how does the "hate crime" label jibe with the fact that the victim and his alleged killers were actually friends and close associates? Reported the Dallas News:

Mr. McClelland [the victim] was last seen alive drinking with Mr. Finley and Mr. Crostley, both 27.

The men were thought to be friends. Mr. McClelland was convicted of perjury for lying on Mr. Finley's behalf in a manslaughter case. Mr. Finley went to prison from 2004 to 2007 for shooting a friend in a Paris park; Mr. McClelland was sentenced to a two-year term.

After midnight on Sept. 16, the suspects told police, the men ran out of beer and drove to Oklahoma for more. On the way back, they said, there was an argument over whether Mr. McClelland was too drunk to drive, and he got out of Mr. Finley's pickup, taking a couple of beers with him.

They said that was the last they saw of him.

But investigators found human blood on the undercarriage of Mr. Finley's truck, according to an affidavit filed Sept. 24, and witnesses quoted Mr. Finley and Mr. Crostley as saying that they ran over Mr. McClelland on purpose and dragged him "about 40 feet."

For Ms. Cherry and others in the community, that sounds like what happened a decade ago to Mr. Byrd.

There are differences, however: Mr. Byrd was tied to a pickup and dragged for three miles, while Mr. McClelland was struck and dragged underneath the truck for several feet. Also, two of the three men convicted of killing Mr. Byrd had ties to white supremacist groups and prison gangs. Prison officials say there are no such connections to the suspects in this case, despite rumors to the contrary.

I find it hard to imagine the assailants had some ulterior racist motive when the black victim in question actually committed perjury in a previous manslaughter case to protect one of his killers. Clearly these men were close associates if the victim had lied in court to protect one of them and they were still drinking buddies after he'd done prison time over it. There must be some other, more mundane motive that explains what happened.

I'm not defending McClelland's killers one bit; if the accused men did it, they deserve harsh punishment (the victim's mother told the News she opposes the death penalty and would like to see them get Life Without Parole). I just hate to see activists and the media ginning up racial animosities when the facts don't warrant it. Every murder is an unfathomable tragedy for those involved, but not every white on black murder is a "lynching."

There are plenty of real examples of racism in the world, and especially the justice system, without the media manufacturing alleged racial motives every time there's a mixed-race crime.

BLOGVERSATION: More from Dallas South Blog, which gives background from a Chicago Tribune story on the episode where the victim in this case provided a false alibi for one of his alleged killers. Alan Bean at the Friends of Justice blog agrees with the hate crime meme.

9 comments:

Kristin said...

Hi,

I have a question about your blog. Would you mind emailing me when you get a chance? Thanks so much.


Kristin Babiarz
kristinbabiarz@gmail.com

Pinkycatcher said...

Is this even a capital crime? There was no robbery, serial or mass murder, young child murder etc. I'm not gonna see them getting LWOP or Death unless something new pops up, I see it as two drunks who stupidly ran over a friend and then tried to clean it up like idiots. Stupid, yes, but not capital.

Alan said...

Scott:
As the readers who follow your link to my site will see, I don't agree with the "hate crime meme". I just think it is premature to say that racism isn't involved in this story. Much depends on whether the act alleged was intentional (it is hard to see how it could have been accidental). If you say these guys ran over their "friend" intentionally then you have to ask why. When two white guys kill a black guy the race questions must be asked and answered. That's all I'm saying.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not friends with this Finley guy

123txpublicdefender123 said...

Yeah, I'm not sure where they would get a capital charge out of this. The only thing I can think of is if the beer was his, and they killed him to keep the beer. Then, it could be argued it was a murder in the course of a robbery which would make it capital.

With James Byrd, I remember that they had to establish that he was alive at the time they chained him to the truck because that was necessary to establish kidnapping, which was what they used to make it a capital case.

As for the hate-crime issue, from what we know now, Scott, it seems like you are correct to question it as a hate crime. Unless investigators discover more, it just seems like a senseless murder committed by a violent thug. Imagine killing someone over some beer when that person had lied under oath to help you beat a homicide charge.

Anonymous said...

"When two white guys kill a black guy the race questions must be asked and answered."

Does this question need to be asked when a black guy kills a white person? Just curious.

Alan said...

David Brooks has a good column on perception in the NYT this morning. We don't see what is; we see what we want to see. Brooks is trying to explain why so many financial gurus failed to see the economic writing on the wall, but the insight also applies to the criminal justice system. There is a tendency for white public officials to minimize racial hatred as a motive. We like to believe that, as a culture, we've moved beyond all of that. To a great extent, we have. But vestiges of irrational racial hatred remain and they must be factored into the equation. I'm not saying these guys killed McClelland because he was black; I'm saying that motive matters, especially to the black community. People want to be assured that racism wasn't a factor in this case, and you can't rule out a possibility you haven't considered. There is no history in our country of organized, formal, socially validated black-on-white violence. You don't change hearts and minds by taking Jim Crow laws off the books; there must be a public reckoning, an admission that we were doing it wrong and are now committed to doing it right. In 1920 it was considered okay to string up a black man in Paris, Texas. Has the white community had an opportunity to repudiate that belief? If not, should it surprise us that a handful of people still think this way? Again, I'm not prejudging the case. I don't want to see these guys charged as hate criminals nor do I think they, or anybody else, should be executed for what they did. The severity of the penalty should be tied to the motivation behind the act. Was it an unfortunate accident? Was is calculated sadism? Was race a factor? Prosecutors need to be asking these questions and searching for answers.

Anonymous said...

Living in Galveston, Texas - where all but the most obvious Jim Crow practices are still enforced by the police department and the district attorney, I agree that it is important to address the hate crime issue.

The problem with East Texas is that there is so much white supremacist activity going on her, and so much oppression of minorities and the poor. It's institutionalized oppression.

Better to address the question and determine it's not a hate crime than not to address it.

Horrible that the murder victim was killed by the man he actually went to jail for protecting with a false alibi.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across a post you made on Friends of Justice and I found a link to your blog here. I live in Paris and I want to say thank you for pointing out the BIG differences in what happened here and what happened in Jasper. As for it being a hate crime, the victims mother talks about the suspect being in her home, eating, visiting, playing, ect, for years and the victim's sister says it is no hate crime.I just wish more of the reporters that have jumped on this would tell the WHOLE story as you did instead of tagging it as another Jasper.