After more than a month of proceedings, one of Richmond’s biggest murder trials in years is in the jury’s hands.
Closing arguments Thursday painted two starkly different pictures of the evidence against Joe Blacknell III. The 21-year-old south Richmond native is accused of 22 felonies, including the March 2009 murder of rap artist Marcus Russell, and a daylong spree of shootings and carjackings six months later.
Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts, who has called more than 50 witnesses since the trial’s January 17 start, spent more than three hours of argument and rebuttal on Thursday asserting that evidence proves Blacknell is a violent member of the Easter Hill Boys gang who committed the crimes. And, Butts stressed, Blacknell poses a clear threat to the public if released.
“You’ve got the evidence now to prevent that,” Butts said.
But Blacknell’s public defender, Diana Garrido, hammered home the fact that the prosecution’s two eyewitnesses have wavered on identifying Blacknell. Garrido also emphasized that gunshot residue analysis of the hooded sweatshirt Blacknell wore when captured yielded results inconsistent with what would be expected on the clothing of someone who had fired guns dozens of rounds during a daylong crime spree, as the prosecution alleges.
“If you have any lingering doubt, you must find [Blacknell] not guilty,” Garrido said.
The closing arguments consumed the day’s proceedings. Both sides sought to summarize voluminous and at times complex streams of evidence presented during the trial – with each emphasizing what they thought were their strongest points.
For the prosecution, that meant contextualizing layers of circumstantial evidence, most notably the cell phone records that placed Blacknell’s phone in the vicinity of Russell at the time of his murder, along with the gun, black glove and black mask Blacknell was captured with after running from a car that had been carjacked a few hours earlier. Blacknell also had the most recent carjacking victim’s cell phone in his pocket.
“They were looking for [more] targets,” Butts said of Blacknell and his three unidentified accomplices, adding that it was fortunate that Richmond police apprehended Blacknell when they did. The other three occupants of the car escaped.
Butts also highlighted toolmark evidence that linked the handgun found hidden on the roof where Blacknell was nabbed to two earlier crime scenes that day and. As he had throughout the trial, Butts also used Blacknell’s own words to implicate him.
“The defendant in this case bragged about” the crimes, Butts said. “Two days after Russell’s murder, the defendant wrote on his Myspace page ‘another sucka bites the dust,’ and ‘I’m good in these streets.’”
For the defense, the closing argument was another chance to remind the jury that the prosecution’s only two eyewitnesses – a female passenger in Russell’s car who was wounded during the shooting, and a man who was robbed while his friend’s car was jacked in Oakland – have both given inconsistent statements about seeing Blacknell committing those crimes.
The woman, who had relocated out of state with the help of the District Attorney’s Office, told police on the day of the shooting that she did not see who shot her and Russell from a van that pulled alongside them on I-580. More than one year later, she falsely identified another man, Willie Mulder, as being in the van. Mulder, also known as “Scooter Doo,” was incarcerated at the time of the shooting. Only later, after feeling pressure to identify a suspect and hearing rumors about Blacknell, did she identify him as the shooter, Garrido said.
“You need to believe her to connect Blacknell to the murder,” Garrido said. “She had a huge motive to get the heat off herself.”
Garrido went on to question the cell phone evidence, which she said was marred by errors and inconsistencies. She noted that Blacknell maintained his innocence during a lengthy interrogation with detectives in June 2009, after police had recovered Blacknell’s cell phone and determined that it was near Russell around the time of his murder.
Just 18 years old, lacking sleep, food and legal counsel, the “unsophisticated,” Blacknell truthfully maintained his innocence during “hours and hours of prolonged and intense interrogation by skilled detectives,” Garrido said.
Butts told the jury during his closing argument that he saw the interrogation differently. “Mr. Blacknell held his own in there,” Butts said. “He’s playing the game.”
Garrido also cast aspersion on the prosecution’s tactics, which made heavy use of photos and other electronic communications to portray Blacknell as a violent, gun-wielding menace.
“They want to make you afraid to let Joe Blacknell back on the street,” Garrido said. “Fear is not a substitute for facts.”
Blacknell is accused of committing 22 felonies over two days in 2009, when he was 18 years old. On March 10, 2009, he allegedly stalked and then killed Russell, who had been at a photo shoot in Marina Bay for an upcoming hip hop album. The prosecution alleges that Blacknell, riding shotgun in a full-sized van, shot Russell’s car at least 11 times with an assault rifle near the Bayview exit on I-580.
On September 13, 2009, Blacknell allegedly acted with several other unknown Easter Hill Boys gang members in committing a spree of shootings and carjackings.
The series crimes for which Blacknell is charged began the night before, when a blue Honda van was stolen from a home in the Hilltop area. Early that morning, the blue van was spotted during a shooting at the Pullman Apartment complex, where two men were wounded.
At 11:30 a.m. that same morning, the van was recorded by a video camera at an Oakland liquor store, where at least two men exited and riddled a car with bullets near the Acorn Housing Projects. A man in the car was wounded by several bullets, and his young niece in the passenger seat was unhurt.
Around 2 p.m., an 80-year-old man was carjacked for his Chevrolet Malibu, and the blue van was dumped nearby minutes later.
At around 2:30 p.m., witnesses reported at least four men in black hoodies exiting a car resembling the stolen Malibu. Armed with semiautomatic handguns and assault rifles, the men fanned around a purple Buick that was idling and playing loud music at the intersection of Harbour Way and Chanslor Avenue in Richmond. As the men unloaded more than 40 rounds into the car, the driver accelerated and slammed into a van stopped at the other side of the intersection. One of the two men in the Buick, both alleged central Richmond gang members, survived life-threatening injuries to his arm and torso. The other man recounted in a pretrial hearing last year that bullets whizzed by him as he ran from the crash site, but he was not hit.
Later that afternoon, two men were carjacked for their Nissan Maxima while chatting in front of an Oakland corner store.
Just after 9 p.m. that same night, with the Richmond police conducting saturation patrols in the city and on high alert, two officers attempted to stop the Maxima near the intersection of 23rd Street and Cutting Boulevard. Four men fled the car, and Blacknell was nabbed after a short foot chase, during which officers fired five shots at Blacknell after he allegedly pointed a gun at them.
Blacknell was caught hiding on a roof near Hoffman Street. A handgun and extended magazine were found on the roof, and Blacknell was carrying a black mask, black glove and the cell phone of one of the Oakland carjacking victims.
The prosecution believes Blacknell was involved in all the crimes that day, carjacking vehicles as a means to elude police while carrying out deadly strikes in rival neighborhoods.
The prosecution has proposed separate motives for Russell’s murder and the crime spree six months later. Russell, who was 21 years old, became a target to Blacknell and his fellow gang members because of his growing celebrity and past association with the “Backstreets,” a rival south Richmond neighborhood that lays adjacent to Easter Hill, Butts said. In the weeks leading up to his death, Russell’s friends and family reported seeing a red van lurking around a local barbecue restaurant, a smoke shop, and Russell’s grandmother’s house – all places Russell was known to frequent. The red van the witnesses saw, the prosecution alleges, is owned by Blacknell’s mother, Celeste Sipp.
Family members testified during the trial that Russell had matured since the birth of his daughter and release of a well-received album. “For his failings, Marcus Russell was trying to do some good,” Butts said. “And that made him a target of the defendant.”
The crime spree in September, Butts alleged, was spurred by a desire to mark the anniversary of the murder of Sean “Shawny Bo” Melson by avenging his death with strikes against rival gang members.
Blacknell’s childhood friend and an alleged Easter Hill Boys gang member. Melson was 16 when he was shot and killed by rival gang members in front of a corner store in North Richmond in September 2006. Police believe central Richmond gang members were responsible, but no one has been arrested.
As part of the Melson theory, Butts introduced evidence – vis-à-vis gang expert testimony by Richmond Det. Christopher Llamas – that linked shell casings in the September 13 crimes with the murders of four people in Oakland and Richmond over the 72 hours before September 13.
Butts pointed to private messages Blacknell allegedly wrote to Melson’s Myspace page, years after the boy’s murder. The crime spree on September 13 was Blacknell “Keepin’ it lit for Shawny Bo,” Butts said, citing a private message from Blacknell’s Myspace page to the page registered to the already-deceased Melson, promising to “keep it lit 4 ya.”
Butts blended this theory for the September crime spree with another, alleging that the shooting at the Acorn Housing projects in Oakland was the result of a growing inter-city alliance between Blacknell’s Easter Hill Boys and Ghosttown, a West Oakland gang.
Blacknell, the father of three small children, spent much of his late teens in juvenile facilities thanks to two felony gun possession convictions and a misdemeanor conviction over a stolen car. His convictions came after the murder of Melson, which occurred when Blacknell was 15. He has a tattoo on his arm honoring Melson, which was revealed when Butts forced him to show his tattooed arms to the jury. Blacknell is known to friends and acquaintances as “Fatter,” a name his mother testified he was given because he was a big, chubby baby when he was born in 1991 at Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo.
Joe’s father, Joe Sr., grew up in the Easter Hill neighborhood before it was razed and rebuilt. Sipp moved to Richmond from Oakland when she was 17. Joe is the oldest of five children born to Joe Sr. and Sipp.
Blacknell, wearing black-rimmed glasses and sweaters his mother brings him daily, has sat quiet during courtroom proceedings, with the exception of shaking his head side-to-side during a police officer’s testimony that Blacknell pointed a gun at him – which the officer testified prompted he and his partner to fire five rounds, all missing Blacknell.
During her closing argument, Garrido said much of the state’s case was without merit. Her criticisms often bordered on accusing the prosecution of reckless conduct, and prompted Butts to rebut with a lengthy defense of his office’s probity: “I make an effort not to play fast and loose with the facts,” Butts said during his closing argument rebuttal.
Garrido said factors like Richmond’s persistently high homicide rate and the police department’s 2009 creation of a special gang unit created a larger context in which her client became a target and a victim, first of baseless rumors that influenced witnesses to implicate him, then of a prosecution based largely on opinion, rumor and circumstance.
“Their argument is that Joe Blacknell is a bad guy, and they have no one else to pin this on,” Garrido said.
Among the grossest overreaches by the prosecution, Garrido said, was the late, two-day-plus testimony of Llamas, which included his interpretations of Blacknell’s poems and rap lyrics and analyses about the history and dynamics of Richmond street violence. Llamas said Blacknell and his subset of the Easter Hill Boys – which Llamas testified went by the name “Beam Team” to connote laser-sighting they mounted to their gun barrels – were a prolific, violent force in 2009.
Worst, Garrido said, was Llamas insinuation that Blacknell was involved in many other killings in the city in 2009, despite the lack of evidence to bring charges in those murders.
“It’s [Butts’] Hail Mary,” Garrido told the jury. “Llamas was used as a sledgehammer” to drive unsubstantiated charges onto her client, Garrido added.
Garrido allowed that it is “reasonable to believe” that Blacknell was one of four men who fled from police, gun in hand, from a stolen Nissan Maxima on the night of September 13. But anything beyond that, Garrido said, is not supported by the evidence.
The gunshot residue analysis, Garrido said, made it unreasonable to conclude that Blacknell “was out shooting people all day long.” Experts for both the prosecution and defense said the four distinct particles found on Blacknell’s sweater were far fewer than the hundreds that would have been expected given the allegations.
“The reason it doesn’t make any sense is because someone gave Joe that gun after everything went down,” Garrido said.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations on Monday. Blacknell’s mother, grandmothers, sisters and oldest son have frequently attended hearings. Russell’s mother, sister, grandmothers and other family members have consistently attended as well.
If convicted, Blacknell faces life in prison.