Gang murder trial focuses on detectives’ late-night interrogation of Blacknell

joe blacknell and marcus russell

Blacknell, left, has pleaded innocent to charges that he killed Marcus Russell, shown on the right in a tattoo portriat on his older sister's forearm.

The prosecutor let the image linger overhead.

The photo’s stark shades revealed a slim teen boy, hat backwards, teeth bared in a sneer. The jury saw in his thin arms an AK-47 assault rifle, right hand on the trigger, left hand braced under the barrel, a long “banana clip” magazine jutting out the bottom. His T-shirt bore a memorial picture of Sean “Shawny Bo” Melson, an alleged gang member who was shot and killed at age 16 in North Richmond in September, 2006.

The picture, taken before his 2009 arrest, beamed from an overhead projector for more than a minute, a visual depiction of the portrait of Joe Blacknell III that Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts has sought to paint since the trial’s January 17 start. Blacknell, aged 21, is charged with 22 felonies, including the murder of rap artist Marcus Russell on March 10, 2009, and six counts of attempted murder stemming from another day of mayhem in September 2009.

Prosecutors allege that Russell was killed because of his affiliation with the south Richmond neighborhood “Backstreets,” a rival of Blacknell’s Easter Hill Boys gang. The crime spree in September, prosecutors say, was aimed at various central Richmond and West Oakland gang members. It was a macabre commemoration marking the 3-year anniversary of the murder of Melson, an alleged Easter Hill Boys gang member, prosecutors say. Melson was Blacknell’s close friend.

Blacknell has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His attorney, Diana Garrido, has said her client has alibis for his whereabouts during the crimes and that he is the target of a flawed prosecution, based mostly on inconsistent eyewitness testimony.

On Thursday, a day of riveting testimony by prosecution witnesses, was bookended by accounts from an Oakland police gang expert who exlplained West Oakland’s gang landscape and Richmond Police Sgt. Michael Rood, who conducted a video recorded interrogation of Blacknell for more than four hours on July 19, 2009, when Blacknell was a suspect in Russell’s murder.

Officer Steve Valle, an expert on West Oakland gangs, testified that links between four distinct West Oakland neighborhoods and gang members in Richmond have been forged over generations as families and friends have moved between the two areas, which are connected by I-580. Valle testified that a gang dubbed “Acorn,” named after a housing project, has an ongoing feud with nearby “Ghosttown.” That fued, Valle testified, led to the November, 2008, murder of Oakland resident Vincent Scott Jr., also known as “Skinny Poo.” Scott was 16 at the time of his death, and pictures of him as well as notes regarding his memorial were found on a cell phone the prosecution alleges belonged to Blacknell.

Blacknell is charged with shooting and wounding a man near the Acorn housing projects on Sept. 13, 2009, after Scott’s murder. An Acorn gang member has been convicted of killing Scott.

But in a case where witnesses have routinely recanted their accounts or have been exposed as having held inconsistent accounts when attempting to place Blacknell at crime scenes, perhaps the most important testimony came from Blacknell himself, vis-à-vis a tape recording of his July 19 interrogation by Rood. Blacknell was a suspect in Russell’s killing four months earlier, and is alleged to have committed another crime spree two months later.

At the time, Blacknell had no idea he had been brought in for questioning regarding Russell’s murder . Nor did he know that Rood had the results of an analysis of the geotracking information in Blacknell’s cell phone, which Blacknell had dropped while running from a sheriff’s deputy in North Richmond in June.

Butts played the video of the interview for the jury. Rood, a burly plainclothes detective sat in front of the spindly Blacknell, 18 at the time, with a small table between them.

“What you know about that?” Rood said, tossing a hip hop magazine across the table to Blacknell. Russell’s photo was on the magazine’s cover. Blacknell flipped through the pages for about one minute but didn’t speak.

“You hear he got killed?” Rood asked.

“Yeah,” Blacknell said, nodding. “The news,” indicating where he had heard the information.

Rood then showed Blacknell more than a dozen photos of himself and alleged Easter Hill Boys gang members, most taken from Myspace.com accounts. Of the several photos depicting himself holding assault weapons and handguns, Blacknell said at various times that they were older photos from “back in the day.”

“It’s kid stuff,” he said, adding that it was “stupid.”

Late in the interview, with the time stamp well past midnight, Rood pressed Blacknell about the recovered cell phone, which Blacknell previously admitted was his. Rood said that analysis of Metro PCS cell tower data revealed that the phone was in roughly the same area—on the I-580 traveling east—at the time that Russell was shot and killed. Prosecutors allege that Blacknell was the shooter, seated in the passenger seat of a van that pulled alongside Russell’s car.

Blacknell said he remembered the day because it was his cousin’s birthday. He said that he was driving back from Oakland—west on I-580—with his mother, cousin and the mother of one of his children when he saw the freeway blockage that resulted from Russell’s shooting.

The interview turned more confrontational. Rood told Blacknell that his story was contradicted by cell tower data that indicated he was traveling east, not west, on I-580.

“How do you explain that [expletive] man?” Rood said.

“I don’t know about this tower stuff?” Blacknell said later, rubbing his head and saying he didn’t “get it.” He maintained that he was with his mother and cousin and the mother of his child and was traveling west on I-580 around the time of Russell’s shooting.

In addition to the cell phone records – which an expert earlier this week testified is accurate – Rood testified that he used several “ruses,” during interrogation, a technique commonly used by homicide detectives.

“We use them to elicit information,” Rood said.

Rood told Blacknell that police had linked him to Russell’s killing with DNA evidence from the shell casings, that surveillance video had captured the crime, and that eyewitnesses had implicated him. None of that was true at the time. An eyewitness, a woman who was in the passenger seat of Russell’s car, has since come forward.

“Did those appear to shake the defendant?” Butts asked.

“No,” Rood said. “(Blacknell) adamantly denied” involvement in Russell’s murder.

If convicted, Blacknell faces life in prison. Rood will be cross examined beginning at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.

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