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Jeremy Christian Murder Trial Delayed, Despite Objections From Victims

<p>Jeremy Christian listens during a hearing in a Multnomah County courtroom in Portland, Ore., on Friday, May 3, 2019. Christian was in court seeking a delay in the beginning of his trial while the state considers changes to its death penalty law.</p>

Laurie Isola

Jeremy Christian listens during a hearing in a Multnomah County courtroom in Portland, Ore., on Friday, May 3, 2019. Christian was in court seeking a delay in the beginning of his trial while the state considers changes to its death penalty law.

Over fierce objections from his alleged victims and their family members, Jeremy Christian’s murder trial is being delayed.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Albrecht on Friday agreed with defense attorneys that too much needs to be done prior to a scheduled trial date of June 24. While she acknowledged victims have been waiting years to see the outcome of the case, the judge said Christian’s right to a fair trial required a six-month delay.

The trial is now scheduled for January 21.

Christian is accused of murdering two men, Rick Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and injuring a third, Micah Fletcher, in a May 2017 throat-slashing attack on a TriMet light rail train. Prosecutors say Christian had been menacing two teenage girls when the three men stepped in, leading to the attack.

He faces 15 felony and misdemeanor charges stemming from the incident, the most serious of which are two counts of aggravated murder. He could be sentenced to death in Oregon if found guilty of those crimes.

Christian, who has claimed he was acting in self-defense, made reference to a potential death penalty sentence as he entered the courtroom Friday, saying: “Don’t put me to death for following state law. Please.”

Christian is also accused of accosting a woman named Demetria Hester the day prior to the attack. Hester appeared in court Friday, as she did at a late April hearing in which Christian began yelling at her. She urged Albrecht to begin the trial as scheduled.

“Why am I here having to tell you that the victims want justice, peace and closure today?” she asked Albrecht. “I shouldn’t have to. We are the victims.”

Hester, who is black, said repeatedly Friday that Christian would have been killed by police if he were not white. He was arrested following the attack. Hester said Christian’s race was leading to favorable treatment.

Family members of one of Christian’s alleged victims, Namkai-Meche, also argued against the delay. On Thursday, they filed a memorandum with the court asking Albrecht to keep the trial on its current trajectory.

“It has been more than two years since the defendant’s murder spree on a crowded train,” the memo said. “The crimes themselves were captured on video and audio, so what happened is clear. The only questions presented are why it happened and what the defendant’s punishment should be.”

But defense attorneys said Friday it would be impossible to give Christian adequate representation under that time table. Attorney Greg Scholl said he’d been given more than 1,000 pages of potential evidence by prosecutors in recent weeks, and that he was expecting significant expert reports in June.

He also said coordinating schedules of people involved in aiding with the defense had made it impossible to adequately prepare for trial. And he noted that, while Christian’s case has been ongoing for nearly two years, he has had to represent other people accused of capital crimes in that time.

“We are not un-credible people,” said Scholl, who noted this was the first delay he had requested. “We have not misled anybody about anything in this case. We have not engaged in any shenanigans or delay tactics."

The fact that Christian faces aggravated murder charges is also a key reason for a delay.

A bill before the state Legislature, Senate Bill 1013, would narrow the definition of the crime, part of an attempt to limit use of capital punishment in the state. It would limit it to premeditated killings of two or more people with the intent to “coerce a civilian population” and “influence the policy of a government,” among other things.

The bill passed out of legislative committee in April and is currently awaiting a vote before the full Senate.

Prosecutors have not said whether they plan to pursue the death penalty if Christian is convicted, but Scholl argued uncertainty over whether the bill would pass created too many questions.

“If we start this trial even tomorrow, we are close enough to that potential change in the law that we would not know how to prepare certain aspects of the trial,” he said.

Namkai-Meche’s family disagreed.

Among the family’s arguments was a notion that SB 1013 has an unlikely chance of passing. They suggested that, under legislative rules, the bill needs to be passed by the Senate and scheduled for a work session in a House committee by May 10 — a timeline they pointed out is quickly approaching.

Senate President Peter Courtney’s office told OPB Friday that the bill is still alive and will get a vote in the Senate. Courtney's spokeswoman, Carol McAlice Currie, pointed out that legislative deadlines can be subverted if the bill is placed in certain committees.

Namkai-Meche’s family also argued that, even if SB 1013 does pass, it needn’t impact Christian’s fate. The change would take effect 91 days after the Legislature adjourns this year, likely meaning sometime in late September.

“By that time,” the family argued, “the defendant’s criminal trial will be over.”

Prosecutors took a neutral stance on the proposed delay. Assistant District Attorney Jeff Howes said he agreed with family that the trial should occur sooner than later, but he said it would “not be intellectually honest” to say he didn’t understand the defense’s standpoint.

Asked his perspective on the matter, Christian told the judge he “always wanted to get it over soon.”

“I’ve been ambivalent up ‘til now but everything my attorneys just said to you — they’ve convinced me that we need a set-over,” he said. “I have to listen to my attorneys, I guess.”

In the end, Albrecht found arguments for delay persuasive. And while she appeared to give it less weight than other aspects of the defense’s argument, she noted there was a risk of moving forward while the Legislature is mulling changes to state law.

“If [the bill] were to pass, there would be a high likelihood that it would either cause a mistrial or we would have to set it over at the last minute,” the judge said. “It would be more disruptive to everyone’s schedule.”

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.