Joe Blacknell III’s mother took the stand in his defense Wednesday, testifying that her son is a hip-hop fan and father of three, and not a violent gang member who killed one man and wounded at least four others in 2009, as police and prosecutors allege.
“You guys make him out to be this,” said Celeste Sipp, in response to Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts’ questions about photos that appear to show Blacknell throwing gang signs. “I don’t know him as a gang member.”
Blacknell is on trial for 22 felony counts stemming from two days of violence in 2009, March 10 and September 13. In addition to Russell’s murder, Blacknell, who goes by the nickname “Fatter,” is charged with three other shootings and two carjackings in Oakland and Richmond. Prosecutors allege that Blacknell became a violent killer in the aftermath of the murder of his childhood friend, Sean Melson, in North Richmond, on September 10, 2006. Melson was 16-years-old. The crimes on September 13, 2009, targeted rival gang members in part to mark the anniversary of Melson’s death, Butts has said.
Sipp, 41, took the stand as a key defense witness, attesting to her son’s whereabouts on the afternoon of March 10, 2009, when local rap artist Marcus Russell was killed and a female passenger wounded after the car that they were in was shot at by people in a van that rolled alongside as they drove on I-580 toward Oakland. Using tracking data from a cell phone linked to Blacknell, the prosecution has contended that Blacknell was traveling west on I-580 near the time and place of Russell’s murder.
But Sipp said Blacknell was at her house in Richmond celebrating a cousin’s birthday at the time of the murder. Sipp said she, Blacknell’s father, and their five children used several family cell phones interchangeably, and possibly on the day of Russell’s murder.
Sipp testified that she moved to Richmond from Oakland at age 17, and that she raised her children predominately in the Easter Hill neighborhood. Blacknell’s family on his father’s side has been in south Richmond for generations.
In a case that has often centered on Myspace postings and other electronic communications – which prosecutors highlight in portraying Blacknell as a violent enforcer in the Easter Hill Boys gang who was photographed holding firearms dozens of times as a child – Butts on Wednesday questioned Sipp about her own electronic messages.
Standing next to her on the witness stand and displaying seized messages on a laptop computer, Butts asked Sipp to explain writings she posted on Myspace after her son’s September 2009 arrest.
“Free Fatter fast, they can’t hold a real nigga down,” Butts said, reading Sipp’s messages aloud. “Bred in this shit to win this shit.”
“What do you mean by that?” Butts asked.
“It means being real, basically,” Sipp said.
“I don’t understand that,” Butts replied.
“To be real, he real, a real person,” Sipp said, adding that she was upset by negative news reports and rumors about her son’s involvement in local crimes.
Later, Butts asked Sipp about whether her son could have killed Russell. In addition to the cell phone records, Russell’s female companion has identified Blacknell as the shooter, although for more than a year following the crime she told police and friends that she could not identify a shooter.
“So he could not have been on I-580 shooting Marcus Russell?” Butts asked, referring to Russell’s whereabouts at the time of the crime.
“He was in his room,” Sipp said.
In other testimony, Sipp said her son was loved rapping and writing lyrics, and that he incessantly sang while doing mundane things around the house. During the prosecution’s presentation of its case, many of Blacknell’s written lyrics were shown to the jury, lyrics which included violent imagery, often associated with alleged central Richmond gang member rivals.
“Did you ever hear him rapping, referencing real people … shooting people in the head?” Butts asked.
“I don’t listen, to be honest with you,” Sipp said.
After Sipp’s testimony, public defender Diana Garrido called Kianti Gix, a childhood friend and college track athlete, to the stand. Gix also wrote and posted violent lyrics on his Myspace page, including references to the “Beam Team,” a moniker he said Richmond police falsely affixed to him and his friends. Police and prosecutors allege that the “Beam Team” was adopted by a subset of the Easter Hill Boys who included Blacknell, and was in reference to laser sightings they allegedly mounted on guns.
Gix said the lyrics were not literal, but an expression of the reality in which he and his friends were raised.
“I saw my first dead body when I was 8 years old,” Gix said. “I grew up in an environment where people were shot everyday.”
Outside the court, Daniel Barnett, who identified himself as Blacknell’s best friend, said he expects Blacknell to be cleared of all charges.
“He is just the perfect fall guy for the police and prosecutors,” Barnett said.
Butts has alleged in court that Barnett is an Easter Hill Boys gang member.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday. If convicted, Blacknell faces life in prison.