They met in church, at Acts Full Gospel in Oakland. She was 51 years old, a cat-lover and toll-taker on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge who was trying to get out of bad relationship.
He was 58 years old, an ex-Marine who drove a bus for Golden Gate Transit. He was a guy who kept everything in its place, his car and briefcase neat. He was a deacon, or “servant” at Acts.
Both of them grew up in Oakland, living just a few blocks apart even though they didn’t know each other then.
They started dating and after just a few months she already had a closet full of clothes and shoes at his apartment. He would walk around with a wide smile that elicited teasing from his brothers.
In August 2009 she told her family she was moving out of the house she shared with her ex-boyfriend. Her ex, Nathan Burris, decided he was not going to let her leave, and he was going to fatally punish her and the new man in her life. On August 11, 2009 Burris drove to the toll plaza and murdered Deborah Ann Ross and Ersie “Chuckie” Everette. Burris was convicted earlier this month on two counts of first-degree murder for slaying the couple on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
Because the jury found Burris guilty of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of lying in wait he is eligible for the death penalty, and this sentencing trial will determine his fate. Tuesday members of Ross’s and Everette’s family had the chance to take the witness stand and tell the jury about the lives Burris ended.
“That’s his smile,” Ronald Everette, Chuckie’s brother, said from the witness stand while gazing at a picture of his brother handed to him by Senior Deputy District Attorney Harold Jewett. “Those are his eyes,” Ronald added, and his voice broke.
Ronald says he’s the joker in the family, that he likes to keep them laughing when times are hard. On the stand though, he let his pain show.
“How’re you feeling?” Jewett asked.
“Very emotional,” Ronald said. His eyes were red, and his voice shook as he continued. “I was at a nice place with closure,” he said. “But going over it again brings up all of the emotions again.”
Jewett asked Ronald to tell the jury how he learned of his brother’s murder and what he did when he found out.
Ronald’s brother Danny had called him asking if he’d heard about the situation on the bridge, and told him Chuckie might have been involved. Ronald said since he was nearby he drove straight to the bridge to see what he could learn. There, on a dirt access road near the toll plaza a Richmond Police officer confirmed his fears.
“He told me, ‘I’m not going to lie to you, it was your brother,’” Ronald said. Eyes watering again, Ronald said his first thought was to go after whoever did it.
“The detective saw me going that way,” Ronald said. “He made me pay attention to him and said, ‘No. Go to your mother. We’ll take care of him.’”
So Ronald went to his mother’s house to be with her and his family, but added that he was very close to going out to find the killer.
Burris spoke out from his seat at the defendant’s table. “You’re lucky you didn’t,” he said.
Ronald turned his head quickly to look at Burris. His face was set, all of the emotion gone. Locking eyes with Burris, he said, “No. You’re lucky I didn’t.”
Burris started to respond and the two spoke over one another for a few seconds before Judge John Kennedy called them to order.
Asking Ronald to focus on him, Jewett asked him to describe the feelings he has toward Burris.
“I would love for him, for his skin to burn off and for him to rot in hell,” Ronald said. “I despise him. I think he’s a coward.”
Burris just chuckled.
Outside of the courtroom last week, Ronald said he was nervous to testify because of his anger towards Burris. Each day, in the courtroom Ronald goes to the last row, and tries to sit between other people so he can’t respond easily to Burris’ goading from the defendant’s table.
Throughout the trial, Burris has represented himself and has used the time for cross-examination of witnesses to say disparaging things about the victims and their families.
“It has been extremely hard,” Ronald said after the jury came back with a guilty verdict last week. “To get in here and see the pictures…” he trailed off as he recalled the autopsy pictures the corner had gone over at length just a few days earlier. He said that he can’t even watch the TV shows he used to, like CSI, because it hits too close to home.
“I miss my brother,” Ronald said. Sometimes, he said, he forgets he’s gone.
After Ronald’s testimony, Jane Gray-Walker came to the witness stand. “I am a Ross,” she said after Jewett apologized for incorrectly calling her Jane Ross. Gray-Walker wore a small red ribbon with a picture of Deborah’s smiling face at its center.
Gray-Walker uses a cane to get around, her hair is mostly gray and her shoulders are slightly hunched but her voice and her spirit are still strong.
“He was just another stray off the streets,” she said as she stared hard at Burris.
Earlier, Gray-Walker had testified to Deborah’s nature, using her love of bringing home helpless animals to illustrate her kindness. “She was always helping people,” Gray-Walker said.
She said Deborah helped her recover from alcohol abuse, bailed her out of jail more than once and took her on cruises—a tradition the family participated in just last week.
Jewett showed the court pictures of Deborah and the family, many of them taken on cruises, and asked Gray-Walker to identify the people in them. While she listed off the sisters, nieces, nephews and other relatives in the images Deborah’s bright-white grin stood out.
“She always wanted to help somebody,” Gray-Walker said. “My sister took care of [Burris]. She thought she could do something for him and help him.”
“We had no idea he was so treacherous,” she added.
Jewett asked Gray-Walker how she feels towards Burris now.
“I hate him. I used to know him. I hate him. I hate him,” she said, and her voice rang out on the last sentence.
Burris has said time and again, in open court, that he does not care if he gets the death penalty. He’s called California’s death penalty system a joke because inmates wait for decades on death row. He calls his cell his apartment and refers to the rest of his life in prison—whether it is ended naturally or by execution—as his retirement.
At the start of the sentencing trial he told jurors they could just flip a coin to determine what sentence to give him.
But as the trial winds down Burris is calling witnesses from out of state back to the stand and with the assistance of his advisory lawyer Larry Barnes, successfully stopping Jewett from introducing pieces of evidence.
“He’s a clown,” Deborah’s sister Ladietra Ross said after court. “He just wants some attention.”
Ronald, and many of the family members who come to court every day say they find solace in their faith.
“My brother had been looking for the passion of his soul mate,” Ronald said. “He met his soul mate. They’re in heaven together.”
That knowledge, Ronald said, is what he gets him through the harder times. Believing that the couple lives on, together.
The defense rested on Tuesday. Wednesday morning Burris will mount his defense against the death penalty sentencing.