Richmond murder victim’s mother testifies

marcus russell

Marcus Russell, a rising rap star, was killed when he was shot while driving on I-580 in March 2009. Monday would have been his 24th birthday, his mother said.

On the night before his death, Marcus Russell’s nerves were uneasy, and a red minivan was lurking curbside a few blocks from his grandmother’s house, his mother testified Monday.

But before Faith Russell could see who was driving the red minivan, which she said she saw several times in her neighborhood in the months leading up to her son’s March 2009 death, it sped away. Once, as she drove toward it, the van accelerated up the street, headlights off.

A day later, as her son’s bullet-riddled body was en route to the hospital – where he was pronounced dead – the last thing on Russell’s mind was the suspicious red van the night before.

“My priority was wanting to know whether my son would live or die,” Russell said from the witness stand Monday, explaining why she didn’t report the van to police.

The red minivan, which prosecutors say was driven by Joe Blacknell III as he allegedly committed several of the 22 felonies for which he is on trial, was a frequent subject of discussion as the fourth week of trial began in the case against the 21-year-old Richmond resident. Blacknell has pleaded not guilty to charges that he killed local rap artist Marcus Russell and shot and wounded at least four others on two days in 2009.

In later testimony, the owner of a popular downtown barbecue restaurant testified that he too saw a red van circling the block and drawing Russell’s attention on March 9, 2009 – but could not identify the driver.

Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts says the van belonged to Blacknell’s mother.

But why the van was of particular interest to Russell before his death was in dispute Monday. At one point, public defender Diana Garrido moved for a mistrial after a witness alluded to statements the Russell may have made in the days before his death – statements implicating Blacknell and the red van as being associated with a plot to kill him. Judge Thomas Haddock denied the request, but struck the testimony from the record as hearsay.

Monday’s proceedings also featured the testimony of a witness who was not there. Sherroy Moore, 27, has gone AWOL in recent months to avoid testifying at the trial, prosecutors say. On Sept. 13, 2009, he and a friend were driving in a Buick sedan near Harbour Way and Chanslor Avenue when four men jumped from another vehicle and opened fire on their car. Moore ran into a nearby church and avoided being struck by gunfire, while his friend survived bullet wounds to his arm and chest. In May 2011, he testified at a pretrial hearing, but said he could not identify his attackers. His testimony was read to the jury Monday by a stand-in reader.

“When I was running toward the church, the cars in front of me were getting hit with bullets,” the reader said, reciting Moore’s testimony from last year. “(In the church) they took me into a back room and was praying for me or whatever.”

Testimony is scheduled to resume Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. If convicted, Blacknell faces life in prison.

Monday also marked a solemn date.

“Today is my son’s birthday,” Faith Russell said outside the courtroom. “He would have been 24 years old.”

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