Jury selection began Tuesday in Portland for the trial of Jeremy Christian, the man prosecutors allege went on a stabbing rampage on board a MAX light-rail train more than two and a half years ago.
Three men were stabbed. Only one of them survived.
Since then, Christian has largely faded from the headlines, though what happened onboard the MAX is still unresolved and an acute fear for many. The event stunned the city and the country in 2017 amid the rise in hate crimes and concerns about emboldened white supremacists.
The trial has also renewed discussions around mental health treatment, the safety of TriMet riders and the day-to-day reality for many communities of color in Oregon.
The stabbings took place in a train car full of witnesses and surveillance cameras, raising questions about how a trial, seemingly full of condemning evidence against Christian, might unfold.
“I don’t care how much time I get in prison if I’m found guilty or innocent,” Christian said in court Tuesday, during the start of jury selection. “All I care is that the public gets to see and hear what happened on the train.”
The Day Before
The story of what happened on the light rail train actually begins the day before.
On May 25, 2017, Christian was riding the MAX. A cellphone video first reported by KATU depicts Christian making outbursts, attacks on religion and violent threats.
“Oh, it looks like we’ve got a Christian or Muslim fucking bus driver,” Christian said. “I’ll stab you too bitch. Move forward.”
The video seems to foreshadow what would happen less than 24 hours later.
“Call the police, I dare you,” Christian shouted.
That same day, court documents allege Christian assaulted Portland resident Demetria Hester while she was on her way home from work onboard a MAX train. She told Christian he was being offensive.
In a news conference months after the MAX stabbings, Hester told reporters Christian said to her, “You don’t even have the right to be on this train.”
Hester, who is black, said Christian, who is white, threatened her as she was getting off the train.
“‘I built this country,’” Hester recalled him saying. “‘You don’t have a right to speak. You’re black. You don’t have a right to be here.’”
Then, she said, Christian lunged at her and hit her in her right eye.
“I grabbed my mace and sprayed him in the face with mace, and he went down,” Hester said. “As all this is happening, there’s at least 25 people walking around, not helping, not saying anything. It was just me. And I went over and kicked him in the groin as my eye was bleeding … barely could see.”
Later, Portland Police officers arrived. Hester said she identified Christian, who was washing out his eyes in the drinking fountain. In a statement, the Portland Police Bureau disputed that, but acknowledged Christian slipped away that night.
Hester said police should’ve caught Christian that night. If they had, maybe it would’ve stopped what happened on the afternoon of May 26, 2017, when Christian was on a similar rant.
This time, Christian’s tirade was directed at two young African American women on the train, according to court documents.
“He started talking, right when he got on the train,” Destinee Mangum, one of the young women, told OPB in June 2018. Mangum was with Walia Mohamed, who was wearing a hijab. She said Christian spoke in defense of Nazis when he got on the train.
“We were just both kinda caught off guard because we both haven’t been in a racial — we haven’t had any run-ins with racists, so it was kind of a surprise to both of us,” Mangum said. “I remember just saying, ‘He doesn’t look like he cares about himself, so why would he care about us?’”
Mangum and Mohamed moved toward the back of the train.
Court documents describe Christian provoking several riders.
There was shouting, shoving. The situation escalated.
Then, according to court documents, Christian pulled a folding knife out of his pocket and stabbed three men: Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23; Ricky Best, 53; and Micah Fletcher.
Best and Namkai-Meche died. Fletcher, now 24, was badly wounded. About a week after the attack, Fletcher posted a video on his Facebook account thanking people for their support.
“It’s funny, as a poet you would think that I would have the words and it’s not something I’ve ever really had a problem with,” Fletcher said, his voice shaken. He also spoke about Mangum and Mohamed.
“I want you to imagine that for a second, being that little girl on that MAX,” he said. “This man is screaming at you. His face is a pile of knives. Everything about him is cocked, loaded and ready to kill you. We need to remember this is about them.”
In 2018, Mangum said she thinks of Best and Namkai-Meche every day, her bedroom wall at home was decorated with memorials to them.
“I just want them to know that I appreciate everything, and I just want them to be proud of me, watching me from up there,” Mangum said.
A year after the attack, she said she was still coming to terms with what happened.
“If I wasn’t on the train or he didn’t see an obvious Muslim, would they still be alive?” she said.
Christian was charged in a 15 count indictment, including two counts of first degree murder, one count of first degree attempted murder, assault and intimidation.
In court, Christian has denied any wrongdoing.
“Not guilty of anything, but defending myself,” he said during one pre-trial outburst.
The Prosecution And Defense
Multnomah County prosecutors are likely to lean on overwhelming evidence from witnesses and video that captured the killings aboard the train. But, despite how the public may perceive the case, experts said a conviction is far from certain.
“Even if all of that is captured on video, he is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” said Katie Suver, a deputy district attorney in Marion County. She’s not involved in the Christian trial, but supervises her office’s major criminal cases, like murder.
Suver said prosecutors trying murder cases, like the one in Multnomah County, have the challenge of putting on an extremely careful case if they want to get convictions. She said the last thing prosecutors want to do is cause a legal error that results in a mistrial or acquittal.
Prosecutors also have to prove what Christian’s intent was at the time.
“Even if your evidence seems very good, you still have to be very careful,” Suver said. “Even if your evidence seems really good, the defendant can still raise all possible defenses, particularly as it relates to the mental state to commit a crime.”
Records from Christian’s previous arrests and interviews with people who knew him since childhood indicate his mental health was clearly declining for years leading up to the attacks.
“The law places a great deal of focus on the why question,” said Jeffrey Ellis an attorney and co-director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center. He’s not involved in Christian’s defense, but said there are many factors that can go into defending on the grounds of intent, like negligence or diminished capacity.
“In other words, you were suffering from a mental illness that was so severe that you weren’t able to form the intent, you weren’t able to actually make up in your mind that I’m going to intend to kill someone,” Ellis said.
“So there are a lot of distinctions in the law. And these are really significant questions that jurors have to answer.”
Changes to Oregon’s death penalty by state lawmakers last year took the death penalty off the table in Christian’s case, which in some ways could mean the defense has already had its biggest win.
Hester, the victim from the day before the stabbings, said she wishes Christian could get the ultimate penalty. She’s expected to testify at trial.
“I’m not happy about any of the outcome,” Hester said during a recent interview. “I feel like justice would be served if he died for what he did. Because that would set the tone that you can’t just go out killing people in hate because they’re trying to protect themselves from someone else.”
Instead, the most severe sentence Christian could face if he’s convicted during the trial is life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Federal law enforcement officials said they, too, haven’t ruled out additional charges. They’re looking into whether Christian violated any federal civil rights laws.
“Our investigation is still open and we will make any federal charging decisions after the state trial is concluded,” said Kevin Sonoff is a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Selecting a jury could take several days. Opening statements are set for Jan. 28.