“What is justice?” Inside a death penalty trial
on November 24, 2009
Just after 11:00 yesterday morning, on the fifth floor of the Rene C. Davidson courthouse in downtown Oakland, a double murderer named Christopher Evans walked in through the side door of the courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court judge Vernon Nakahara. He sat down at the defense table. A short man with a low hairline and hangdog expression, Evans was dressed in the same cream-colored pullover shirt he had worn nearly every day of the trial. He had already been convicted. He already knew he would die behind bars. He was about to find out how.
The courtroom was silent. Evans, Nakahara, the two defense attorneys, the prosecuting deputy district attorney, and the spectators, many of them relatives of Evans’ victims, waited for the jury members to enter with their verdict. They came in one by one, shuffling their feet. They crossed the room single file. They took their seats in the box.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated and come to order,” said a uniformed bailiff. “Department Eight is now in session.”
This is how it works, in an American courthouse, in a state that still uses the death penalty—how the closing day commences in what one veteran spectator called a “garden variety death penalty case.” The court comes to order. Justice – or at least punishment – is meted out.
After four days of deliberation, the seven-woman, five-man jury was to announce its decision on whether Evans would die while serving a life-without-parole sentence, or via California’s only remaining method of capital punishment: lethal injection.
The same jury had already reached a verdict some four months earlier, in the trial’s guilt phase – one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder, with a special circumstance of multiple murder.
But reaching a unanimous verdict in this, the penalty phase of the trial, presented a different challenge. It depended less on the facts of an incident that took place over eight years ago, and more on jurors’ own interpretations of the defendant’s sociological, criminal, and family histories, as framed by prosecuting Deputy District Attorney Michael Nieto and Evans’ defense attorneys William DuBois and Alexander Selvin.
Nieto, trying for the death penalty, had portrayed Evans as a remorseless, aggressive, cold-blooded thug with a history of violence both in and out of prison. DuBois and Selvin, trying for a sentence of life without parole, had depicted Evans as a caring father loved by his family, as a man with no previous history of serious violence despite harsh personal circumstances in an unforgiving environment, and as a well-behaved inmate who would cause little disturbance or disorder spending the rest of his life behind bars.
These competing narratives had been weighed and judged by the twelve people whose job was to decide Evans’ fate. His killings were two of Oakland’s 87 homicides in 2001. This, according to testimony in the previous phases of Evans’ trial, is how those murders took place:
On April 27, 2001, Evans, then 27, was hanging out near the intersection of 85th Avenue and International Boulevard. The East Oakland junction – at one point referred to by a defense attorney as Evans’ “essence”– is a few doors away from the house where Evans spent much of his childhood. He had sold drugs in the area for some years.
Also at that intersection was a beauty salon called Teez Hair Design, owned and operated by a 28-year-old woman named Tina Rose. Like Evans, Rose was an Oakland native, and the two were acquainted. Inside her shop that April 27, Rose advised another woman to think about leaving her boyfriend. The woman called her boyfriend, to say she might break up with him. The boyfriend threatened to come to the salon and deal with the matter right there. So Rose called two of her brothers and asked them to keep watch at the store, in case the other woman’s offended beau showed up looking for trouble.
Now, according to the accounts given at his murder trial this summer, Christopher Evans entered the situation. He saw the unfamiliar men outside Teez Hair Design. He approached one of Rose’s brothers and “pocket-checked” him, as the attorneys said in court, searching the brother as a police officer might. An argument ensued between Evans and the brother. Tina Rose came out of her salon to defuse things. Rose’s brother went away. But an hour later he came back, with several comrades, and knocked Evans out with a punch to the face. As the group drove off, someone lifted Evans from the ground. Unable to stand on his own for several moments, he staggered along the sidewalk as a friend held him upright. He finally slumped against a white car parked nearby. Another friend had retrieved a 9mm handgun and gave it to Evans, who then walked into the hair salon.
The first person to approach him inside the salon was a 41-year-old father named Tommy Lee Brown. Brown tried to talk Evans down. Evans shot him, twice, one bullet ripping through his femoral artery. As Brown lay bleeding to death on the beauty parlor floor, Rose tried to flee, but Evans followed her out of the shop and shot her once in the back of her head. Rose died just outside the front door of her salon.
There was a defense, back in July, but it wasn’t that Evans didn’t do it. DuBois and Selvin worked together during the guilt phase, too, when they argued that Evans had sustained a serious concussion as a result of the punch from Rose’s brother, and therefore was in an altered state of consciousness – “his mind was Jell-O and Swiss cheese,” DuBois said – that hampered any awareness of what he was doing when he shot Rose and Brown. The jury didn’t buy it. They convicted Evans of first-degree murder in the killing of Rose, and second-degree murder in the killing of Brown.
The only thing left was to decide how a person pays for murdering two innocent people, what the price should be. Maybe such an act renders one unfit to live. Or maybe spending the duration of one’s natural life locked up, with no hope of freedom ever, is bad enough. With that in mind, the trial moved onto its second stage, the guilt phase.
“All of the questions have been answered, except one,” Nieto, the prosecutor, said to the jury. “What is justice? What does justice call out for in this case? What is the appropriate punishment for Christopher Evans?”
The jury’s answer to that question would potentially make Evans the 686th inmate on California’s death row – by far the nation’s largest, and much-maligned as an ineffective, money-hemorrhaging part of the state’s dysfunctional capital punishment system. Meanwhile, as Evans’ fate was argued out before him, the stakes were real not just for him, but for many others in the wood-paneled courtroom, as well: jurors charged with unanimously reaching an extremely difficult decision of, literally, life and death; lawyers mentally exhausted from the long case; Evans’ loved ones, including his daughter and mother, who implored the jury to spare his life; and Tina Rose’s survivors, several of whom attended the trial’s penalty phase daily.
Tina Rose’s mother, Mary Rose, appeared as a witness on the third day of the proceedings. She’s a short woman, with graying black hair. The day Michael Nieto called her to the stand, she was shrouded in a hooded black leather jacket that draped down below her hips. Rose walked slowly past the bar, raised her right hand, and was sworn in by the court clerk. She sat down at the witness stand.
“You are the mother of Tina Rose,” Nieto said. “Correct?”
Mary Rose nodded slowly, her face drawn.
“And how many children do you have?” Nieto asked.
Mary Rose raised a long-fingered hand to her face and began to sob.
Over the next several minutes, Nieto showed a series of photographs: Tina Rose around five years old, standing in the sun with brothers, sisters, and cousins. A portrait of Tina, grown up, looking pretty, and smiling radiantly. Tina’s coffin, surrounded by family members in a cemetery in Selma, Alabama. Flowers and balloons memorializing Tina outside the peach-colored wall of Teez Hair Design. A cake celebrating Tina’s 35th birthday. Mary Rose described the way she still celebrates her daughter’s birthday each year. She described how Tina loved to dance. She said Tina sang in their church choir. She said Tina had used earnings from her job at another hair salon to open, finally, a shop of her own.
Nieto asked Mary Rose to describe the impact of her daughter’s murder on her own life. Rose began to sob again. Her hand trembled in front of her face. “That’s everything,” she said, her voice quiet and raspy.
“I can’t sleep at night,” Rose said. “I have to be on medication that makes me go to sleep at night.” She pointed across the room, where Christopher Evans slouched next to his defense attorneys. “That monster, what he did to my daughter. He did not have to kill my daughter. That monster over there, I never seen him before in my life.” Other Rose relatives sobbed quietly in the court’s public seating area.
Asked outside the courtroom a couple weeks later what she would decide, if she were the entire jury and the verdict were up to her, Mary Rose answered matter-of-factly, “I would say death.”
Farleecia Rose, Tina’s older sister, said she initially shared their mother’s sentiment. “In the beginning, I wished someone in jail would have killed him,” she said outside the courtroom. “I wished he was dead and his family would feel like we felt all those years.” Since then, Farleecia said, she had come to think whichever decision the jury came to would be the right one. But the continuing trial she attended nearly every day still took a toll.
“I pray all day long,” she said. “Some people think I’m talking to myself when I’m walking down the street.” She looked at her mother seated next to her, and at Tabatha Davis, Tina’s best friend since childhood, seated nearby. “I don’t pray for Tina. I pray for the ones that are still here, because there’s nothing we can do.”
But, even after the verdict, there would be no final resolution – everybody in the courtroom seemed to understand this. If the jury did sentence Evans to death, a lengthy series of appeals would follow that sentence, potentially reaching the United States Supreme Court. Evans would likely not be executed until decades later, remaining in the meantime on death row at San Quentin State Prison. Meanwhile, according to a state-commissioned report released last year, the increased security and attention he would require on death row would cost California taxpayers $90,000 per year more than it would to house him in the maximum security unit where he would likely serve a life-without-parole sentence. At that rate, a very plausible delay of twenty years between Evans’ sentencing and execution would cost the state an additional total of $1.8 million.
There was also no clarity as to the exact means of his death, should the jury select that option. Had Evans been scheduled for execution by lethal injection four years ago, he would have known more about precisely what was coming. After spending his final hours in San Quentin’s “death watch” cell and being given a new outfit of jeans and a blue work shirt, Evans would be escorted through an oval door into San Quentin’s small octagonal execution chamber. Inside the chamber, he would have been strapped to a table and connected to a cardiac monitor. Up to 50 witnesses – possibly including media members, relatives of Evans, and relatives of his victims – would have looked on through the windows of a viewing area adjacent to the execution chamber. Just after midnight, San Quentin’s warden would have given the execution order: five grams of sodium pentothal injected into Evans’ bloodstream, inducing unconsciousness; then fifty cubic centimeters of pancuronium bromide, inducing paralysis and causing Evans’ breathing to cease; finally, fifty cubic centimeters of potassium chloride, inducing cardiac arrest and death.
But in 2009 in California, even that set of procedures is in doubt. A moratorium was imposed on lethal injection executions nearly four years ago, following concerns about compliance with the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The moratorium only halted what was already a grindingly slow administration of capital punishment –the state has only carried out 13 executions since 1977. The discrepancy between sentencing and penalty led a state Senate-appointed committee charged with assessing the status of capital punishment in California to conclude last year, “The system is broken.” In fact, the situation has deteriorated to the point that a recent Los Angeles Times report suggested that many inmates would rather go to death row than be sentenced to life without parole.
Evans was twice convicted, in 1994 and 1999, for felony possession of crack cocaine for sale. Calling attention to his previous convictions, and especially to instances of violence, was one of the key ways Nieto framed Evans’ killings of Rose and Brown as part of a larger picture. In doing so, Nieto called a witness named Tina Smith, a woman with a worn-looking face who testified that Evans had assaulted her.
Smith said she used to buy crack from Evans in a neighborhood about a mile away from the intersection of 85th and International, where Rose and Brown were killed. Around 3:00 one morning in 1994, Smith said, she was standing outside on a corner of B Street in East Oakland, when Evans told her to “get the fuck off the corner.” When she refused, Smith said, Evans beat her.
“He just started punching me because I wouldn’t move off the corner,” she said. Smith said she was also kicked by Evans and bitten by a dog he had with him. Nieto produced a copy of the suspect photo lineup police showed her after the incident. Smith picked Evans out of the lineup, just as she had in 1994. But not every witness was as cooperative as Tina Smith.
While incarcerated, Evans was allegedly involved in a June 2008 beating, helping his cellmate jump another inmate named Deandre Hill, whom Nieto called for testimony. Hill, serving life in prison for a taco truck murder nearly two years ago, entered the courtroom wearing a red jumpsuit and a chain belt shackled to his wrists.
Nieto showed a photograph of Christopher Evans, asking Hill if he recognized the image.
“I refuse to answer,” Hill said, a lawyer seated next to him on the witness stand.
Nieto showed a photo taken after the alleged assault, and asked Hill if it showed an injury he suffered that day.
“I refuse to answer,” Hill said.
Nieto showed another photo, asking Hill if he recognized the man depicted as Marcus Jones, his other alleged assailant.
“I refuse to answer,” Hill said.
Marcus Jones, a bulky man with a heavy brow, took the stand after Hill. Since the incident with Hill, Jones had been released, and he wore a shiny silver watch and a bulbous silver ring on his left pinky finger.
Nieto asked Jones if he saw Evans in court.
Jones looked over at the jury, up at the ceiling, and down towards the floor, his head swiveling elaborately. “No,” he said.
Nieto directed Jones’ attention to the defense table, where Evans sat with his lawyers.
“I do see him,” Jones said.
Jones testified that he and Hill had indeed fought, but that it was “a mutual battle,” and that Evans didn’t kick Hill in the head, as alleged at the time. Evans had actually tried to break up the fight, Jones said. Nieto asked Jones if the fight was about Hill being said to have snitched on another inmate, but Jones said no. Nieto asked what he thought of snitching in general.
“Off the top of my head, I don’t really see it as a bad thing,” Jones said.
Nieto asked how snitching is perceived among inmates.
“In jailhouse terms, I wouldn’t believe it’d be a good thing,” Jones said.
“Snitches get hurt?” Nieto asked.
“Snitches get killed,” Nieto said.
“So do ordinary people,” Jones said.
As William DuBois and Alexander Selvin got their penalty phase defense arguments underway, Christopher Evans’ mother Pamela Woodson took the witness stand. Her voice strong and clear when she wasn’t shedding tears, the spectacled Woodson described for over an hour the tough circumstances in which her son grew up.
In 1973, before Evans was born, she said, she was “eighteen and pregnant with a man who wants nothing to do with the baby.” Her son’s father was never even remotely in the picture, Woodson said; in fact, he only met his son a couple times. Soon after Evans’ birth, Woodson moved herself and her son to 23rd Avenue, in an area known locally as the Murder Dubs. The neighborhood there, she said, felt a “world away” from the 85th Avenue neighborhood where most of her family lived. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” Woodson said from the stand. “I’d never had a child before.”
Woodson and Evans eventually moved back closer to her family on 85th, but when he was fourteen, a house fire killed Woodson’s sister and uncle, Edward Evans. Woodson said she had long considered her uncle a father figure and did not learn he was not actually her biological father until she applied for welfare at age 18. Her son looked up to the older Evans as a father as well, Woodson said, and the loss was devastating to him. After the fatal fire, Woodson testified, her son “went his own way” and “didn’t care about work, school, anything.”
Making matters worse were Evans’ academic struggles, which had plagued him from an early age; Woodson testified her son didn’t learn the alphabet until fifth or sixth grade. “He just couldn’t comprehend,” she said repeatedly while on the stand. At 16, according to Oakland school district documents presented by the defense, Evans functioned academically at a first grade level. Shortly thereafter, he dropped out of high school and began selling drugs in the East Oakland neighborhood where he grew up. During opening penalty phase statements, Selvin called Evans’ story the “cycle of the young man from Oakland who has no skills.”
Selvin had come from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to spend months helping DuBois defend Evans. Decades ago, Selvin handled major cases – including the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst – for the same Alameda County District Attorney’s office trying to send Christopher Evans to death row. In the 1980s, after an administration change at the office, Selvin decided it “was time to broaden my horizons, see what it was like to do a little defense.” Moving out of state, he said, was the only way to get some distance from his local history. “In Oakland, every courthouse is a site of a murder I worked on,” he said. “I go into restaurants and run into witnesses.”
While many prosecutors and defense attorneys see the other side as philosophically wrong, Selvin said, he doesn’t look at it that way.
“I did the best I could for the people of the State of California,” he said. “Then, when I became a defense lawyer, I tried to do the best I could for my client. I could move from one side to the other with no problem. One week prosecute a case. One week defend a case. I have no problem with that.”
Selvin currently works exclusively defending in death penalty cases. “Everything in a death penalty case has a lot more importance. It’s more substantial. More rewarding,” he said. Selvin said he also likes the collaborative aspect of death penalty defense, which reminds him of his days as a basketball player on UC Berkeley’s 1960 national runner-up team. “When you’re playing for a good team, it’s very enjoyable,” he said. “It takes a certain skill to manage a good team, to create a good team.”
But despite the rewards, Selvin said, working on some twenty death penalty cases over his career has been grueling. “It’s very draining, even if you’ve done a bunch of them,” he said. “You just put your life on hold for six to nine months sometimes. You have trouble sleeping. You wake up in the middle of the night. I’m always on some level thinking about it, preparing. Then, of course, you develop a relationship with the client.”
Selvin said he’s known Christopher Evans more than five years. “You start to have an ongoing relationship with the family. If he has a wife, then with the wife, or, if he has a kid, then with the kid.”
A week or so after Evans’ mother testified about her son’s tough childhood and adolescence, the defense called Evans’ 13-year-old daughter for a brief testimony. Round-faced and wearing a pink headband and thin chain necklace, she sat down at the witness stand and smiled when identifying Evans as her dad. Questioned by Selvin, she described a father who has “always been there for me” despite being incarcerated most of her life.
“I beg you from the bottom of my heart and soul to please, please, please, please, please, please, please don’t give my dad the death penalty,” she implored the jury.
Selvin asked Evans’ daughter one final question.
She looked across the courtroom at her father, smiled, then bowed her head and began to cry. “I don’t want to lose my father,” she said between sobs. “He’s a very important person in my life.”
She left the stand still in tears. Her waiting mother put an arm around her shoulders as they walked down the aisle and left the courtroom. Christopher Evans turned around in his seat and craned his neck to watch them go, wide-eyed and blinking hard. A bailiff shook his head sternly and tapped Evans on the shoulder. He turned back around. NO COMMUNICATION WITH INMATES PURS. 4570 PENAL CODE, said a sign posted in the courtroom.
The intersection of 85th Avenue and International Boulevard, where Christopher Evans spent most of his life until 2001, lies deep in East Oakland, just past the Oakland Coliseum towards the San Leandro border. It’s an area of small businesses, barred windows, and barking front yard dogs. The Allen Temple Baptist Church, an imposing institution in East Oakland, takes up one corner, its name displayed proudly in bold text above a closed gate. Sedans cruise speed-bumped streets on oversized rims. Their stereos vibrate the air and rattle windows. A few haggard-looking and shabbily dressed men and women sit on boxes on the sidewalk. The police beats surrounding 85th and International rank among Oakland’s least safe.
It’s a place where there are “a lot of youngsters who have no life of privilege,” Belle Ward-Johnson, a longtime neighborhood business owner who knew both Evans and Tina Rose for years, testified during the trial. “The death penalty is also on the streets for these kids,” she said. “It’s imposed daily.”
Rose and Tommy Lee Brown learned that firsthand more than eight years ago. Yesterday morning, in court, Evans waited to learn whether the same penalty would be imposed upon him by the State of California.
During final arguments the week before, DuBois had made a final pitch for a sentence of life without parole. He told jurors not to partake in the “unnecessary killing” of someone not among “the worst of the worst.” He painted a bleak picture of the isolated, lonely life Evans would lead in prison. One day, decades from now, Dubois said, a guard would find him dead in his cell. “The guard will put him in a body bag and carry him out to his grave,” he said. “And that is punishment enough.”
Nieto had urged the jury otherwise. “Don’t fall victim to an unfair guilt trip,” he said. “This isn’t about whether or not you are good people.” He showed a close-up photo of Rose’s blood-soaked head, and photos of Rose and Brown’s coffins. “Let’s make a huge distinction,” he said. “Murder is the killing of innocent people. Your fixing the penalty of death in this trial is not murder. It’s punishment.”
Now as the bailiff called Department 8 to order and the jury filed in, Evans sat slouched at the defense table, DuBois and Selvin to his right. Nieto sat alone in a pinstriped suit at the table next to them. In the public seating area behind where Nieto sat, relatives of Rose and Brown filled two rows. Recently appointed Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who had arrived to watch the verdict, sat across the aisle.
Nakahara asked who the jury’s foreperson was. A tall, slender middle-aged man with glasses and neatly parted gray hair raised his hand from the box’s second row.
“It is my understanding the jury has reached a verdict, is that correct?” Nakahara said.
“Yes, sir,” the foreman answered.
The foreman handed an envelope to the bailiff, who walked it over to the court clerk. The clerk stood and read the verdict aloud: “We, the jury, fix the penalty for Christopher Evans at death.”
Evans, DuBois, and Selvin gave no visible reaction. The crowd in the courtroom was silent, as well, though many would hug one another later on outside the courthouse. Evans’ formal sentencing before Judge Nakahara was set for February 3. The jurors left the box, crossed the courtroom in a line, and filed out one by one. Nieto and O’Malley shook hands and hugged. DuBois and Selvin slipped out of the courtroom together, talking quietly about appeals to come. Evans was led out the side door through which he had entered, soon to be the 686th inmate on California’s death row.
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