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Opening day in capital murder case

on October 25, 2012

Trial began Wednesday in Contra Costa Superior Court in Martinez for a 2009 double homicide at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

Nathaniel Burris is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend Deborah Ann Ross, and Ross’s friend Ersie Everette III on August 11, 2009. Senior Deputy District Attorney Harold Jewett has announced he will seek the death penalty for Burris.

Before jurors were allowed in the courtroom, Burris, who is representing himself with the assistance of private attorney Larry Barnes, asked that Judge John Kennedy remove some of the police officers from the room. Barnes, speaking for Burris – who can often be difficult to understand because of a partial vocal cord paralysis — said it was unnecessary for four officers to be in the courtroom when two had sufficed through the nearly month-long jury selection.

Jewett replied, “I do not trust Nathan Burris.  I think he is capable of anything, at anytime.”

Burris then spoke for himself, saying slowly and carefully, “I am no threat.”

Kennedy ruled that the officers could come and go as they wished, and said he agreed Burris had behaved “like a gentleman” so far. But given the packed courtroom, he said, it was necessary to have a larger police presence. Ross’s and Everette’s family gathered in a group near the front.

As the jury filed in Burris stood behind the defendant’s table. He wore a black long-sleeved collared shirt and smiled slightly as they took their seats.

Grabbing a long black box, Jewett walked toward the jury and set the box down on the witness stand. Unclasping the metal fixtures he opened it and pulled out a shotgun. He laid the gun down on its side, on top of the box. He then walked back toward the clerk and retrieved a crumpled brown paper bag from which he pulled out black binoculars.

Setting the binoculars down on top of the shotgun, he turned to the jury and began his opening statement.

Jewett started with a description of the victims. Turning down the lights in the gallery, he projected a picture against the far wall of Ross and Everette’s driver’s licenses.

“You won’t learn much more than what’s on their driver’s licenses,” Jewett said. Everette was 58, a bus driver for Golden Gate Transit. Ross was 51, a toll-taker at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, and most of her friends called her “Debbie.”

Burris and Ross had been living together at her house in Richmond. Burris didn’t have a car, or a job until Ross called a friend at Western Eagle Shuttle and got him one, Jewett said.

The weekend before Ross was killed, she was with her family in Oakland and told them that she was splitting up with Burris, Jewett said. He said Ross’s brother told her, “Well you better stay ahead of him.”

For the next half hour, Jewett described in detail the events that led to the killing at the Richmond-San Rafael bridge toll plaza. He said Burris slashed one of Everette’s tires—Ross had driven the pickup to work that day while Everette took Ross’s car to get its window fixed—and then drove up to a nearby hill where he watched and waited, “using those binoculars over there,” Jewett said, gesturing at the binoculars he’d laid on top of the shotgun.

“He said, he ‘laid in wait to kill them,’” Jewett said, telling the jury that Burris confessed the killing to police officers transporting him back to Richmond after his arrest.

Everette arrived at the toll plaza shortly before 6 p.m. in Ross’s car and immediately noticed his slashed tire, Jewett said. A surveillance camera in the lot shows Everette kicking under the pickup truck where a spare tire would usually be while he’s on the phone with the tow company, Jewett said. Everette then got into his car to wait for them, Jewett said.

Jewett said the surveillance footage shows Burris’ work van pull into the spot in front of Everette’s truck. Jewett said a container obscures the view, but witnesses and forensic reports show that Burris got out of the car, put his shotgun up to the passenger side window and shot Everette several times.

After killing Everette, Jewett said, Burris ran to toll booth #3 where he knew—because he asked another toll taker earlier in the day—Ross was working.

As he ran over, Jewett said Burris almost immediately began shooting.

Burris had remained stoic throughout the opening statement. But when Jewett began this part of the story—how Ross was killed—he interrupted and declared his objection to the judge. “He’s testifying,” Burris said loudly into the microphone in front of him. The judge overruled, saying that Jewett has the freedom during an opening statement to recreate the events.

Burris accepted the ruling and sat back in his chair. He did not interrupt, or register any visible emotional reactions during the rest of the statement.

“Deborah Ross also saw what was coming,” said Jewett, drawing parallels between the defensive wounds found on Everette and the forensic evidence he said proved Ross was hiding in her booth prior to the attack.

Jewett said Burris then headed for his mother’s house in Sacramento where he ditched the shotgun and its case under a bush by her window before making his way further east into the Sierra foothills.

Around 3 a.m. the following morning, Burris was apprehended by California Highway Patrol officers near Yuba Gap. Following a brief pursuit, Burris pulled his van off the road and turned himself in.

Jewett said Burris told the officers where to find the gun and admitted to the killings.

Jewett wrapped up his opening statement by telling the jury that what he had told them was not evidence, but context for the evidence to come.

Burris declined to make his opening statement immediately following Jewett’s and said he would reserve the right to wait until after the prosecution rests.

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