JEFF CARLTON
Associated Press Writer/Photo Courtesy AP

DALLAS (AP) — Murder charges were dropped at the prosecution’s request Thursday in the dragging death of a black man, and the two white men who had been accused of killing him were released from jail.

Shannon Finley and Charles Crostley were released Thursday afternoon in Paris, in east Texas, after a judge granted the special prosecutor’s motion to dismiss the case. The two men had been charged with fatally striking 24-year-old Brandon McClelland with a pickup truck in September following a late-night beer run the three friends had made to the neighboring state of Oklahoma.

The case had been unraveling in recent months because of a lack of eyewitnesses and physical evidence. Last month, a gravel truck driver gave a sworn statement acknowledging he might have accidentally run over McClelland.

“After investigation, it has been determined this case should be dismissed in the interests of justice,” special prosecutor Toby Shook said. “The decision is about the state of the evidence in the case as it exists today.”

Shook said the investigation will continue. The gravel truck driver is unlikely to face charges.

Finley’s trial had been scheduled to begin next month, with Crostley’s to follow in September.

“I believed all along there was insufficiency of the evidence,” said Ben Massar, Finley’s attorney. “The facts in this case did not add up to these two kids being guilty of the charge.”

“I think it’s very simple,” said David Turner, Crostley’s lawyer. “These fellows didn’t do it.”

Finley and Crostley had been unable to post their bonds and had remained in jail since being arrested last year.

Authorities have said Finley, Crostley and McClelland were friends who drove across the Oklahoma state line for beer in September. 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 had alleged that Finley then ran down McClelland, whose body was caught under the truck and dragged about 70 feet (20 meters). His mangled body was found along a country road.

The racial implications of the case reminded some of the murder of James Byrd, who was chained by the ankles to the bumper of a pickup truck and dragged to death in 1998 in the east Texas town of Jasper. Three white men were convicted of killing him; two are on death row and the other is serving a life term.

McClelland’s death brought out protesters from the Nation of Islam and the New Black Panther Party. A rally last year also attracted at least one acknowledged member of the Ku Klux Klan to Paris, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northeast of Dallas.