The showdown between a prosecutor and a defendant who takes the witness stand can make or break a trial.
But on Monday, a man accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend and her male friend in a shotgun rampage at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza snapped his fingers as he asked a jury to find him guilty quickly so he could be back in jail in time for “Monday Night Football.”
“I did it. So what?” said Nathan Burris, 49, who is representing himself in his capital trial in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez. “No remorse, no regrets, no mercy. … You want me to draw it out in crayon?”
In the audience, a dozen of the victims’ family members stared hard at Burris, who occasionally giggled and – through a speech impediment – cursed the people he killed.
Veteran prosecutor Harold Jewett, a fierce interrogator, sought to drill in during cross-examination, asking Burris if his father would have been proud of him. But Burris stopped answering questions within 30 minutes.
“This isn’t Sesame Street,” Burris said, referring to the jury. “They get it, bro.”
Burris did not get his verdict Monday, and after seven days of testimony his trial may be far from over.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday. If the jury finds him guilty of murder, along with the special circumstances of lying in wait and killing multiple victims, the trial will then move to a death penalty phase, in which Burris will face either execution or life in prison without parole.
However, if California voters on Tuesday support a ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, the final phase will not be held and the trial will end. In that case, Burris would be sentenced to life in prison without parole if the jury upheld the special circumstances.
Burris’ trip to the witness stand was only the latest disturbing chapter in a saga that began on Aug, 11, 2009, when he gunned down his ex-girlfriend, toll-taker Deborah Ross, and her friend Ersie Everette III, a Golden Gate Transit driver and aspiring church deacon from San Leandro.
After a 13-year relationship, Ross, 51, had planned to move out of the Richmond townhouse she shared with Burris and had been packing up her things, her family said. Everette, 58, had begun to court her.
Burris, a truck and shuttle driver, was arrested the day after the shooting. He tried to plead guilty during his first court appearance, saying he was ready to die. But a judge balked, citing a state law that bars capital murder suspects from pleading guilty without a defense lawyer’s consent.
Burris has not offered a clear explanation during the trial for what he did, but has said Everette threatened him, leading him to an act of “self-preservation.”
On Monday, once again, Burris said he wanted to plead guilty. “I’m still alive, they’re not, and that’s all that matters,” he said in court. “I’m ready to roll on down the road.”
But after conferring with an attorney who was appointed to advise him, Burris changed his mind, telling Superior Court Judge John W. Kennedy that he wished to preserve his right to appeal. “Why not?” he said.
He later opted to make a second trip to the witness stand, where he denied that Ross had been moving out and said he was ready to spend the rest of his life in prison – whether on Death Row or not.
He grinned as he said to Jewett, “Do you want to ask me any more questions I’m not going to answer?”
Jewett asked why he was smiling, and Burris responded, “Why not? I’m happy to be alive.”
He said he wasn’t “going to be up here crying about what happened three years ago.” Turning to the jury, he said, “You might be disgusted, but it is what it is.”
Outside court, Ross’ 25-year-old niece, Elesha Nelson of Oakland, said she had to suppress an urge to “cross the stage and slap him. It really makes your blood pressure go up.”
Everette’s stepbrother, 58-year-old Dannie Hollans of Hayward, said Burris’ behavior had heaped more hurt on the family.
“I go home every day tired, knowing his callousness and the cruel and cowardly way he acted,” Hollans said. “He’s pretending to be this bad man, but he snuck up on my brother and a woman and executed them.”