The Big Picture
The defense in the Jeremy Christian murder trial attempted Thursday to get some of the charges against him dismissed, as they prepare to begin presenting their case Monday. This is a common defense tactic in major criminal trials. The prosecution rested its case Wednesday.
Christian is accused of killing two people and injuring a third in a stabbing attack on a Portland MAX light rail train in May 2017.
Last week, witnesses testified that Christian was shouting racist comments while two black teenage girls — Walia Mohamed and Destinee Mangum — were nearby on the train. Mohamed is Muslim and was wearing a hijab.
Christian is also accused of harassing and assaulting Demetria Hester, an African American woman, on a MAX train the day prior.
He faces a dozen felony and misdemeanor charges, including multiple counts of first-degree murder and intimidation.
The Highlights (What Happened Thursday)
Christian’s defense lawyers Thursday presented multiple motions to the court, looking to get certain charges dropped from the indictment.
The defense first questioned the language and grammar in the first and second counts of the prosecution’s indictment against Christian. Those two counts are both murder in the first degree — of Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Ricky Best.
The first count reads that Christian did unlawfully and intentionally cause the death of Namkai-Meche, while also “having unlawfully and intentionally caused the death of Ricky Best … in the course of the same criminal episode.”
The defense sought to make an issue of the fact that the second count flips the two victims' names — stating that Christian did unlawfully and intentionally cause the death of Best, having unlawfully and intentionally caused the death of Namkai-Meche.
“It is impossible for both of these counts to be true, and that is because of the words ‘having caused,’” one of Christian’s defense attorneys, Greg Scholl, said. “What they’re saying is that Mr. Christian caused the death of one person, having already caused the death of another person, and then in the next count they say Mr. Christian caused the death of that other person having already caused the death of the first person.”
Scholl continued: “Grammatically, those words have meanings.”
Scholl made a similar argument for acquitting Christian on the attempted murder count, against stabbing survivor Micah Fletcher.
“The defense is stridently trying to put a very fine point on a couple of words,” Jeff Howes, first assistant to the district attorney, responded. “I understand the argument, but I don’t think it holds water.”
Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Albrecht said she would need to read case law and make a ruling at another time — by the end of Friday at the earliest.
Christian’s defense team also asked the judge Thursday to consider dropping Christian’s two counts of intimidation in the second degree regarding Mohamed and Mangum, the two black teenagers who were on the train.
The charge of intimidation states that a person threatened to inflict serious physical injury against another person due to their race, religion, national origin or other personal characteristics.
“We don’t believe the jury can find Christian made a threat to this specific person,” Scholl said of Mohamed and later, Mangum.
In witness testimony this week and last, accounts have varied as to whether Christian’s ranting on the MAX train was directed at the two teenage girls, or if he was exercising his right to free speech in public.
Howes said there’s no argument that Christian did make comments on the train relating to things like religion and national origin. Some witnesses have said, and video evidence has shown, that Christian made comments about things like beheadings and disparaged Islam and other monotheistic religions.
“I guess the question really is was there a threat to inflict serious physical injury or commit a felony … and the state’s position is that the evidence is actually overwhelming that in fact there was,” Howes said. “These were two young girls. They were in a small, confined space 12 feet from the defendant as he’s yelling, screaming so loud that people at either end of the train could hear him.”
Howes continued: “He’s not saying, ‘I’m going to come over there and stab you in the neck,’ but he’s saying things that are designed to create a fear in the victim of serious physical injury. He’s talking about beheading, ‘Kill yourself,’ he’s talking about ‘Christians kill Muslims,’ all of these things taken as a whole instill grave fear into Walia Mohamed and into Destinee Mangum.”
The last motion Christian’s defense team made was about counts regarding Hester, the black woman Christian is accused of assaulting the day before the stabbings on another MAX train.
Scholl argued against the counts of assault in the second degree and the unlawful use of a weapon upon Hester.
Footage from inside the train and on the platform, and witness testimony, showed Christian on a similar rant. Hester had told Christian to “shut up,” and throughout her train ride, she said Christian continuously threatened her. In exiting the train, Hester sprayed Christian with mace and Christian threw a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle, half-full of wine, at Hester’s eye — causing immediate bruising and, she said, ongoing issues with her vision.
The prosecution’s indictment states that Christian assaulted Hester with a “deadly and dangerous weapon” and similarly that Christian intentionally carried and used a “dangerous and deadly weapon” against Hester.
Scholl argued that “the instrument at issue here, a Gatorade bottle half-full of fluid, is not likely to cause serious physical injury in the manner that it was used. Secondly, and more importantly, there is no evidence that Mr. Christian knew it was a dangerous weapon in the way that it was used.”
“I respectfully disagree with the defense’s characterization that there’s no evidence that the defendant intended to use the Gatorade bottle … as a dangerous weapon,” Howes replied.
Howes referred to some of the video evidence, and witness testimony, regarding the force of Christian’s throw. One of the witnesses had described Christian throwing the bottle “baseball style.”
"The defendant's statements later, afterwards, that he would have stabbed Ms. Hester, but for the presence of a fare inspector there, also goes back to his earlier state of mind at the time he was throwing the bottle at her — which is he intended to harm her, and in fact he would've killed her if there hadn't been a witness present," Howes said, referring to statements Christian said in the jail interview with Portland Police.
“There needs to be specific evidence that Mr. Christian knew the Gatorade bottle was likely to cause … serious physical injury,” Scholl concluded.
What Happens Next
Judge Albrecht said she would rule on whether to drop charges as soon as Friday.The jury was dismissed Wednesday afternoon after the prosecution rested its case. Jurors will return Monday for the beginning of the defense’s case. The defense said it expects its case to go through next Thursday. After that, both parties will present their closing arguments to the jury.