As the jury’s deliberation dragged into a second week, the pressure mounted.
Always unflappable in the courtroom, prosecuting attorney Derek Butts nevertheless found himself wracked with inner anxiety.
“Those two weeks were brutal,” Butts said.
For more than a month in the trial of Joe Blacknell III, Butts’ scratchy monotone had never wavered. Hostile witnesses interrupted him and a spirited public defender contested him at every turn. He led the jury in an examination of grisly evidence, including autopsy photos and forensic reports.
Through it all, Butts kept his cool courtroom demeanor. The icy mask never slipped. He was on a quest to put Blacknell behind bars for the rest of his life.
Over the course of the five-week trial, Butts called more than 50 witnesses in prosecuting Blacknell, including experts in toolmarks and Richmond gang culture—as well as uncooperative gang members. The 21-year-old Easter Hill Boys gang member was convicted this month on 20 of 22 charges, including the March 10, 2009 murder of Marcus Russell, and a series of carjackings and shooting attempts later that year.
During the trial, Butts laid out his strongest evidence: Blacknell’s cell phone bounced off towers near the time and location of Russell’s murder, and showed the path Blacknell drove before and after. Days after Russell’s death, Blacknell and friends made MySpace postings with veiled references to perpetrating the crime. Russell’s passenger, a young woman who was wounded in the leg, also testified that she saw Blacknell pull the trigger.
But Blacknell, through his attorney, Diana Garrido, maintained his innocence on all charges. His friends and family accused the District Attorney’s Office of cooking up a case against Blacknell out of desperation for a conviction, and Garrido noted that the state relied heavily on circumstantial evidence and eyewitnesses who had made previous misidentifications. For example, she argued, when Blacknell was nabbed after running from a stolen car the night of Sept. 13, 2009, three other men eluded police. Eyewitnesses have wavered on whether Blacknell was present at any crimes, and the assault rifle used to kill Russell was never found.
The prosecution alleged that Blacknell was involved in at least four separate shooting scenes on the day of Sept. 13, where a total of more than 100 bullets were discharged. Yet an examination of the black hooded sweatshirt he wore that day yielded just a fraction of the gunshot residue that would be expected, experts testified.
After the attorneys gave closing arguments on Feb. 24, the jury didn’t return a quick verdict. February turned to March.
“Tons of anxiety,” said Butts, who has been a Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney for 17 years, of how he felt during deliberations. “You replay things in your head, twist stuff around. You can’t devote this much into anything and not worry.”
When the jury’s guilty verdict was read by the court clerk on March 8, members of the audience erupted in cries of protest. Blacknell’s younger sister screamed “Free my brother!” and stomped from the chambers. Blacknell shook his head no. Butts, who comported himself with a clinical cool throughout the trial, sat silent.
Blacknell’s sentencing hearing is set for March 22. He faces life in prison without parole for Russell’s murder, and more than 150 years for the counts stemming from the crime spree in September, Butts said.
On March 11, with the verdict behind him, Butts discussed the case during a wide-ranging 30-minute interview. The 43-year-old prosecutor talked about the pressures of the case, the challenges, and his thoughts on what drove Blacknell to commit those crimes.
“This was an important verdict for the city of Richmond,” Butts said. Blacknell, he said, “was one of the most violent and prolific shooters ever in Richmond. This guy is the real deal.”
As he laid out during the trial, Butts has his own incomplete theories about why Russell was killed, and what served as a motive for some of Blacknell’s other crimes, which he argued were part of an ongoing war between south and central Richmond neighborhood gangs.
“They picked Marcus [Russell] in part because of his rap thing,” Butts said, alluding to Russell’s growing fame among hip-hop fans in 2009. On the day he died, Russell was driving east on I-580 from a photo shoot in which he was featured near the waters at Marina Bay. “But something else must have happened, Marcus must have done something that got their attention.”
For all that went right in the trial, unanswered questions still gnaw at him, Butts said, like who else was involved in the Russell murder but has not been brought to justice. “They were probably four deep in that van” when Russell was killed, Butts said.
Just a handful of the 47 homicides recorded in 2009 have been solved. During Blacknell’s trial, Butts called toolmark experts as well as Richmond Police Detective Christopher Llamas to the stand to testify that .40 caliber casings found at the sites of the September 13, 2009, crimes for which Blacknell was charged matched casings found in connection with four other homicides that occurred during the preceding days. But the gun that fired them has not been recovered and has never been linked to Blacknell.
Blacknell has not been charged in connection with any of those crimes, but the court allowed Llamas, in his capacity as an expert in south Richmond gangs, to offer his theories about whether Blacknell and the Easter Hills Boys may have been involved.
In court, Butts contended that the crime spree which eventually led to Blacknell’s Sept. 13 capture after a short pursuit by Richmond police was a way to violently commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Sean “Shawny Bo” Melson. Meslon was 16 when he was shot and killed in North Richmond on Sept. 10, 2006. Melson was Blacknell’s childhood friend, and a revered member of the Easter Hill Boys, Butts said.
But Butts doesn’t claim to have any special insights into who Blacknell is beneath the bravado of his rap lyrics and the evidence that linked him to the crimes. Other than advising him of his legal rights, Butts has never spoken to the wiry young man whom he has put away, likely for the rest of his life. “If he hadn’t been arrested, I think he’d be dead by now, and if he had stayed out he would have killed more people, shot more people,” Butts said.
Pressed to speculate about how Blacknell may have gone from the chubby baby nicknamed “Fatter” in the nursery of Doctor’s Medical Center in 1991 to a convicted killer, Butts said: “I really don’t know … It makes this case so unusual that someone that young would start being so violent.” Blacknell was 18 when the crimes for which he has been convicted were committed. As a juvenile, he was incarcerated twice on gun charges. “Is he a sociopathic killer? He may be. But he may be a normal youngster in some respects who thought this was the thing to do,” Butts said.
After a long pause, Butts mentioned that he is unnerved by some photos he has seen posted on social networking sites, including pictures of Blacknell’s son. Blacknell had three children before his arrest at age 18. “You see the toddlers on there throwing up gang signs,” he said.
With the trial over—this was his fifth prosecution of a murder case out of Richmond for—Butts said he is looking forward to some time off. In November and December, in preparation for the Jan. 17 opening statements, Butts was putting in 12-hour days and working weekends, he said.
“This was a 110 percent devotion to something at the expense of everything else,” Butts said. “My thoughts on the case were constant, all-consuming. I was up for hours at night … It almost takes over your life. Actually I would say it takes over your life.”
And although he never showed it, Butts admits that losing crossed his mind. “If you come up short on this, if you don’t get the results, it can be devastating on so many different levels,” Butts said. “Colleagues would look and wonder, victims’ families and the community would suffer because you didn’t get the outcome you should have.”
Asked if he was concerned about any reaction on the streets over Blacknell’s conviction, Butts said he had no doubt.
“I think the reverberations will be that fewer people will die, so I am happy about that,” Butts said. “If [Blacknell’s] absence emboldens rivals, I would be just as happy to prosecute them.”