On Friday, Nathanial Burris was sentenced in Contra Costa Superior Court in Martinez to the death penalty for the August, 2009, double murder of his ex-girlfriend Deborah Ann Ross and her friend Ersie “Chuckie” Everette at the toll plaza of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
California law requires that the presiding judge on a capital case review the jury’s decision and decrease the sentence if necessary. In this case, presiding Judge John Kennedy considered decreasing Burris’ sentence to life in prison, rather than the death penalty. The formal sentencing also allows the family members of the victims, as well as the convicted person, a chance to speak to the court and plead for leniency or a harsh sentence.
On Friday Kennedy decided the jury’s verdict was sound. “Nathan Burris shall be put to death within the walls of San Quentin prison,” said Kennedy, reading his verdict following hours of last-minute appeals by Burris and statements of loss and pain given by the victims’ families.
Burris walked into the courtroom Friday looking markedly different than during his last appearance in court. The nice slacks and long sleeved collared sweater he wore throughout the trial were replaced by state-issued clothing: bright yellow cotton pants, a stained gray long sleeve sweater and a bright yellow short sleeve shirt. His hands were shackled behind his back and his recently grown goatee and mustache appeared unkempt.
But his bravado—made evident early during the jury trial when he admitted to the murders, even describing in detail how he did it and what the victims’ last words were—had not faded. Upon taking his seat at the defendant’s table Burris—who continues to represent himself with the assistance of attorney Larry Barnes—asked the judge for a retrial. “What I said before is, if my opponent doesn’t do his homework, the court cannot help him,” Burris said.
Burris accused Kennedy of helping prosecutor Howard Jewett by improperly allowing him to call witnesses to the stand during the sentencing portion of the trial. He said that the witnesses Jewett called should never have been presented and that their testimony led to a wrongful death sentence. The witnesses Burris took issue with were his past co-workers and employers who testified to personally experiencing Burris’ rage and threats.
Burris said he does not think it was right for people he knew over twenty years ago to testify against him, and he said that their testimony about him being a bad employee was inaccurate. “It’s not a crime to quit your job or be fired,” Burris said.
Jewett responded to Burris’ argument by reading back some of the threatening remarks witnesses said Burris made to them.
“I’ll smoke your ass. I’ll put one right through your forehead,” Jewett said, reading from the court record threats that a former co-worker said Burris made to him when they worked together at a security firm.
He also brought up the threats that were played in court for the jury—threats Burris had left on the voicemail machine of his former employers, for whom he worked in 2007 hauling cars cross-country for their tucking company.
“The people did our homework,” Jewett said, referring to the prosecution team, “and the court properly agreed with the people.”
“The aggravating factors were properly admitted,” Kennedy said, adding that Burris had supplied the most damaging evidence when he took the stand and admitted to a string of armed robberies in San Francisco.
“Motion for a new trial is denied,” Kennedy said.
Then he asked Burris if there was anything he’d like to say before he ruled on whether or not to reduce his sentence from the death penalty to life in prison.
“I’m not asking for a reduction,” Burris said. “So what? I don’t care. It ain’t gonna bother me one way or another. I’m in California and there ain’t no death penalty.”
The death penalty in California has a complicated history; it was in effect from 1850 until 1972, when the California Supreme Court ruled it illegal. In 1977, the death penalty was reinstated, but the last Death Row inmate to actually be executed was in 2006. As of January 3, 729 inmates are awaiting execution—Burris would be number 730.
In last November’s election, the death penalty was re-affirmed when Proposition 34—an attempt to repeal it—failed. The election results came in while the jury in Burris’ case was deliberating on whether or not to sentence him to death.
Throughout the trial Burris has mocked the death penalty process in California and repeatedly called it a “joke.” He refers to the cell he lives in as his “apartment” and says he looks forward to his “retirement” where he can watch sports, work out and eat three meals a day.
“The way I see it, I have a good 35 or 40 years before anything happens,” Burris said, listing off on his upraised hand the three possible ways he sees his life ending: “I get executed—probably not. I get killed in jail—possibility. Or, I die of natural causes—likely.”
Rising from his seat, Jewett argued that what Burris wants doesn’t matter—that by committing the “cold-blooded” murders he has lost the right to live. “He has forfeited his right to walk and breathe among civilized people,” Jewett said. “If ever there was a case where a man deserves the death penalty, it’s Nathan Burris,” he added as Burris chuckled loudly from his seat.
“May I?” Burris asked Kennedy after Jewett finished.
“I’m not concerned at all, believe me,” Burris said after the judge gave him permission to speak. “Off the top of my head I have 25 or 30 appeals I could utilize. Why run to a room where they’re going to kill you?”
After a brief recess, members of the victims’ families had their chance to tell the court about the lives Burris ended and the pain it has caused them.
“I’m Debbie’s third oldest sister,” said Tyrice Ross as she stood microphone in hand at a podium on the other side of the room from Burris. “Debbie took good care of Nathan,” Ross said, her voice cracking. “She always had his back, but she got tired. She got tired of him.”
With shaky hands Ross pulled out a card she said her sister showed her before she died—one that Chuckie had given to her. Ross read the words Chuckie had meant for Debbie, a poem that described what he saw when he looked at her. “This is what I see when I look at you,” Ross read. “A smile that lights up the room. A love that is pure and true.”
During the reading Burris stared straight ahead, without acknowledging Ross.
Ladietra Ross, another one of Debbie’s sisters, went next. She was shaking as she spoke; through gasps and tears she described the sister she lost. “Deborah was a beautiful person,” she said. “It’s really hard for all of us because we loved Nathan. We loved Nathan because she loved Nathan. … What he did to her…I’ll…I’ll never understand it. He was a good person at one time. But all that is gone.”
On Ladietra Ross’s left pinky finger was an ornate butterfly ring. She has said before that it was Deborah’s ring and she wears it in memory of her sister, who loved butterflies.
Albert Gray and Anthony Lenoir, Deborah’s nephews, also spoke. Each asked Kennedy to give Burris the strictest sentence possible. “Do not let a creepy murderer like Nathan Burris sit on Death Row,” Gray said. “Put him out quickly.”
After Deborah’s oldest sister, Jane Gray-Walker, spoke—calling Burris a “coward”—Burris asked for a moment to “go in the back” (a small room adjoining the courtroom), before anyone from Chuckie Everette’s family spoke. Kennedy granted his request and Burris was led out in handcuffs. When the hearing resumed and Burris returned, Ronald Everette, the victim’s younger brother, said he was determined to not allow Burris to define their lives any longer. “Can we just breathe for a moment?” he asked from the podium. Turning to the gallery with hands outstretched he continued, “We’ve been going through a lot of drama. This is about closure.”
Everette reminded the audience that the family has said time and again that they take solace in their faith, and that they know Debbie and Chuckie are together in Heaven. The two met at Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland where Everette was a deacon and Ross an active parishioner.
“All Nathan did was join two people together for eternal life,” Ronald Everette said. “Family, heal yourself,” he added, making eye contact with each of them as he spoke.
Kenneth Everette, the youngest of the brothers, walked to the podium leaning heavily on his cane—he sustained serious injuries to his legs when he was hit by a train a few years ago—and wiping his eyes. “When I look back, I’m not going to think about Nathan murdering my brother,” Kenneth said in a voice raw with emotion.
From the defendant’s table Burris laughed loudly and took a long drink of water while still staring straight ahead.
“I often think, if he were still alive, what kind of person would I be now?” Kenneth Everette continued. “How much more would I have grown by the wisdom of his words?”
Dannie Hollins, who is now the family’s oldest surviving brother, said that he felt only one thing: rage. “Today I’m going to express how I feel right now,” Hollins said. “For fourteen years Chuckie and I worked together. I saw him every day for fourteen years. I have never experienced rage and hate until I came to this court.”
As Hollins spoke he grasped the sides of the podium tightly and leaned forward, speaking each sentence forcefully. “That was such a cowardly and small thing to do,” he said. “He’s an itty-bitty coward.”
Once the family was done speaking, Burris had his turn. He used the chance to taunt the families again. “I don’t care if people call me a coward,” he said. “Debbie’s sisters are correct: I did have feelings for Debbie. The other man was just in the way.”
“I’m not concerned about what happened in the past,” Burris added. “I got what I wanted,” he said in reference to the death penalty. “It’s like when I lived in my small truck. I’ll live in my small apartment in San Quentin.”
As Burris spoke, the victims’ family members started to get up and leave. “You’re a coward!” Kenneth Everette yelled as he exited the room.
Those who remained in the courtroom while the judge read the sentence reacted quietly in their seats, nodding in approval as he sentenced Burris to death.
Outside of the courthouse, in the bright sunlight the Everette and Ross families stood hugging one another and rejoicing in the end of a long journey—one that began for them on August 9, 2009.
“I’m glad it’s finally over,” Lenoir said.