Opening statements were delivered Tuesday in the trial of a Richmond man accused of commiting a 2009 crime spree that left four people wounded and a 21-year-old rap artist dead in incidents six months apart.
Jose Blacknell III, age 21, whom prosecutors say is a member of the Easter Hill Boys gang and goes by the nickname “Fatter,” is charged with 22 felony counts in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez, including first-degree murder for the March, 2009 killing of Marcus Russell. Blacknell faces life in prison without parole if convicted on all charges.
Blacknell was “a doer,” Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts told the jury. “One of the most violent shooters of the Easter Hill Boys.”
But defense attorney Diana Garrido said Blacknell was not the perpetrator of any of the crimes, but instead the target of a prosecution based on discredited witnesses and inconclusive scientific evidence.
During Tuesday’s proceedings, Butts and Garrido gave jurors starkly different accounts of the evidence against Blacknell, who has been in custody since September 2009. The prosecution said several witnesses, including a woman who was wounded while riding with Russell when his car was riddled with bullets on I-580. She will testify that Blacknell shot her and Russell with a high-powered rifle aimed out the window of another vehicle.
Butts laid out a case bolstered by circumstantial and forensic evidence that he said linked Blacknell to the crimes. Butts also referred to MySpace communication and poems allegedly written by Blacknell while in custody that he said indicated that Blacknell was a violent enforcer within his gang.
But Garrido said there were inconsistencies in witness statements to investigators and characterized the circumstantial and forensic links made by the prosecution as weak.
“This case is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole,” Garrido said.
Garrido noted that the prosecution’s charges that Blacknell killed Russell was based on witness testimony that has changed several times during discussions with investigators, only solidifying after weeks passed and rumors in the community about her client had created a perception that he was the killer.
After weeks of jury selection and other deliberations that delayed a trial originally scheduled to begin in late December, Butts opened by explaining to the jury the context of the gang battles that have marred Richmond for years.
“You kill one of ours, and we kill one of yours,” Butts said, calling the tit-for-tat of homicidal violence a “mentality” that pervades rival crews in North, Central and South Richmond and has connections to crews in Oakland. “It goes on, and on and on.”
Butts said Blacknell was a feared member of a subset of the Easter Hill Boys gang called the “Beam Team,” a reference to laser sightings they attach to their guns.
Butts said Russell, who went by the nickname “Young Smacka,” was a member of the Backstreet Boys, a rival of Blacknell’s Easter Hill Boys. Russell’s fame in the East Bay was on the rise, thanks to a hip-hop album he released shortly before his death.
“[Russell] had something positive going for him, but it put him out there,” Butts said, adding that media promotions and neighborhood photo shoots had made Russell visible, and vulnerable, to enemies.
On the night of his death, Russell attended a photo shoot in a neighborhood near Easter Hill, called the “Backstreets,” and later drove in his purple Nissan Maxima with a female companion toward the 23rd Street onramp of I-580. At the same time, Blacknell was riding in his mother’s red van. He was armed with a high-powered rifle and ready to to strike, Butts said.
“The defendant was hunting for Marcus Russell,” Butts said.
The red van pulled up alongside the driver’s side of Russell’s car, Butts said, and a person the prosecution believes was Blacknell aimed an assault rifle out the window.
“He waits, until Marcus can see” before killing him, Butts said.
Russell was hit several times, including in the face and chest, Butts said. “Marcus was in bad shape,” Butts said. “He didn’t die immediately, but he was unable to give [police] a statement.”
Butts showed the jury a photo of Russell’s mangled and bullet-riddled car, which plunged off the freeway after he was shot.
Butts said the female passenger was wounded in the leg. She has moved out of state, but will testify that Blacknell was the shooter, Butts said.
Butts acknowledged in his remarks that the woman has given conflicting accounts to police, a fact that Garrido also noted in her statements to the jury. but blamed the inconsistencies on her fearing for her life if she implicated Blacknell.
During his opening statements, Butts also showed several photographs of Blacknell brandishing assault rifles and handguns. The prosecutor also read writings confiscated from Blacknell’s jail cell in which he wrote about his intention to use “choppahs,” slang for AK-47 assault rifles, to kill Central Richmond rivals.
After Russell’s death, Blacknell was on the streets for another six months.
At least 18 other counts Blacknell faces in the same trial stem from an alleged crime spree in September 2009, six months after Russell’s killing. Prosecutors allege Blacknell was responsible for two carjackings, shooting and wounding four people shooting at but missing two others in a single day.
On Sept. 12, a blue Honda Odyssey was reported stolen in Richmond. At 8:46 a.m. the next morning, a shooting was reported in the Pullman Apartments, with a witness reporting seeing the blue van in the area. Two men were injured, but did not cooperate with police.
Less than two hours later, in the Acorn Apartment complex in West Oakland, a surveillance camera captured four men wearing masks getting out of a blue van and firing 29 rounds into a vehicle, wounding a man but missing his young niece who was also inside the vehicle. “This was a case of mistaken identity,” Butts said, referring to the target of the shooting.
Over the next four hours, two carjackings and a shooting at Harbour Way and Chanslor Avenue occurred. Prosecutors believe Blacknell was involved in all the crimes.
At around 9:30 p.m., still on Sept. 13, police nabbed Blacknell near Cutting Boulevard and 17th Street after a short foot pursuit in which Blacknell allegedly pointed a gun at police, who responded by shooting at him. No one was hurt.
Garrido, Blacknell’s court-appointed defense attorney, said the prosecution’s case is based on a blend of discredited witnesses, tenuous circumstantial evidence and subjective science.
Photographs of Blacknell and examples of his writings prove nothing, she said.
“Violent rap lyrics don’t mean anything necessarily,” Garrido said pointing out that the victim also wrote raw lyrics. “Marcus Russell had some of the most violent lyrics around.”
Many experts, including the National Academy of Scientists, don’t support the science of matching casings to a weapon, as the prosecution has done with a handgun linked to Blacknell, Garrido said. In an email last week, Garrido wrote on the subject, “Forensic firearms ‘identifications’ come down to a guy sitting in an office at the Sheriff’s Department, saying ‘I know it when I see it.’”
Garrido also offered an alibi, saying Blacknell spent the day in question at his girlfriend’s house in Oakland.
Blacknell, wearing black-rimmed glasses and dressed in a dark sweatshirt with white stripes and a white collar, listened to Tuesday’s proceedings without visible emotion. He turned to look back at the public seating area several times.
The trial is scheduled to resume 9 a.m. Wednesday.