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Witnesses recall red van tailing Marcus Russell in days before his murder

on February 5, 2012

In the days before he was shot and killed while driving his grandmother’s Nissan Maxima on I-580, Marcus Russell was nervous about simmering neighborhood tensions and a red minivan that seemed to be following him around Richmond, Russell’s friends and family testified in Contra Costa County Court Thursday.

“You know your children,” Faith Russell, Marcus’ mother, said from the witness stand. “And it looked like something was bothering him.”

The day of testimony wrapped up the third week of proceedings in the trial against Joe Blacknell III, age 21, an alleged south Richmond gangmember accused of 22 felonies over two days in 2009, including the murder of Russell, a rising East Bay rap star.

Blacknell has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, public defender Diana Garrido, has said the prosecution has no solid evidence linking Blacknell to the crime and are desperate for a conviction in the spate of crimes that rocked Richmond in 2009.

On Thursday, Deputy District Attorney Derek Butts called Russell’s mother, sister and best friend to the stand, each of whom testified that Russell had been tailed by a red minivan in the days before his death. None of the witnesses said they saw Blacknell in the van, but all said they recognized the vehicle as belonging to his mother.

On March 10, 2009, Russell and a female companion were driving east on I-580 in Russell’s grandmother’s Nissan Maxima when a van pulled alongside and fired at least 11 shots into the driver’s side, killing Russell and wounding the woman.

Other witnesses Thursday included a courtroom bailiff and the woman wounded in the car with Russell in 2009. The bailiff, Torin Fischer, a former Palo Alto police officer, testified that he confiscated a cell phone from a female associate of Blacknell’s in May 2011, after the woman was spotted surreptitiously recording the testimony of a prosecution witness.

Much of the testimony centered on Russell’s history connected to the “Backstreets,” a neighborhood clique he associated with in the community south of Cutting Boulevard and west of 23rd Street. The Backstreets are longtime rivals of the Easter Hill Boys, a neighborhood clique based east of 23rd Street and south of Cutting Boulevard.

“It’s like that everywhere in Richmond,” testified a 24-year-old man who was Russell’s best friend. “Every area don’t like another area.”

If convicted, Blacknell faces life in prison. The trial is set to resume at 9 a.m. Monday.

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