PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – In a murder case where numerous commuters recorded the violence on cellphone video, the facts are not at issue. As for what motivated him to slash the throats of three unarmed men, attorneys for the killer told a jury Tuesday that he acted in self-defense.
Defense attorney Dean Smith told the jury at the start of the five-week trial that the only people Jeremy Christian harmed were the three men who confronted him in the midst of a long, disjointed rant that bystanders said was filled with hate. Christian appeared to be yelling at two black girls, one of whom wore a hijab.
But Smith suggested Christian would not have become violent if one of the men he stabbed had not first tried to interrupt his rant and kick him off the train.
“Others on the train had been angry, yelling back at him, but none intervened,” Smith said. “This was a situation not invited by Mr. Christian. He did not approach other people physically. They approached him.”
That take was countered by Don Rees, deputy district attorney for Multnomah County.
“Jeremy Christian intentionally killed and injured and threatened those who disagreed with him, those who told him to shut up, those who did not look like him,” Rees told the jury. “He knew exactly what he was doing. He intended to do it and he feels justified.”
Rees delivered a detailed and harrowing description of the murders.
On a beautiful Friday afternoon at the start of Memorial Day weekend in 2017, Christian, 37, sat aboard a light rail train, drinking from the spigot of a plastic bladder of boxed sangria as he ranted about Jews and Muslims, beheadings and Saudia Arabia and Vikings and circumcision.
Passengers yelled back at him. One man, Shawn Forde, stood between Christian and the girls, in an attempt to block them from Christian’s view. Micah Fletcher, then 21, joined Forde, telling Christian to “shut up and leave the girls alone.” Taliesin Namkai-Meche, who was 23, approached Christian, holding out his cell phone.
“You’re about to be an internet sensation,” Namkai-Meche told him.
Christian slapped the phone out of Namkai-Meche’s hand before he could press record.
“Do something, bitch!” Christian yelled. He shoved Fletcher, who pushed him back.
Christian grabbed a folding knife out of his pocket as he shoved Namkai-Meche with his other hand. The train stopped and the doors opened as the men stood face-to-face. Ricky Best, 53, stood behind Namkai-Meche.
None of them could see the knife Christian held down at his side. He opened the blade with a flick of his wrist when Fletcher shoved him again.
“Go on and get,” Fletcher yelled.
Over the next 12 seconds, Christian sliced the necks of three men. Best and Namkai-Meche fell to the floor. Fletcher fled, while Christian stabbed the other two men again and again.
Afterward, there was chaos. One witness mistook the spray of blood for a sudden rain. Some tried to help the men who were stabbed, while others fled, stepping over their bodies.
Best died on the train. Namkai-Meche was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. Fletcher survived, with a prominent scar running from below his ear nearly to his collarbone.
Christian stepped off the train. Security cameras show him passing Fletcher, the knife in his outstretched arm, as Fletcher stood on the platform holding his neck.
Christian crossed the platform and began a slow, deliberately paced ascent up the long set of stairs that was the only escape from the train platform to the street above. Ahead, the girls ran, screaming.
Zhada Allen, a third black teen who had been on the train that day, testified Tuesday that she fled up the stairs afterward with the other two girls.
“I ran for my life,” Allen, now a junior in high school, told the jury. “Because I didn’t know who he was going to come for next.”
Christian walked a mile before police captured him.
“This is a hate crime,” Christian told police. “I hope they all die.”
He pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, attempted murder, menacing, intimidation, assault and illegal use of a weapon. The charges could amount to life in prison, but not the death penalty because of a new state law narrowing the use of that sentence.
Fletcher told police after the incident that he faulted himself for not confronting Christian more aggressively.
“I keep bringing it back to this thought that I didn’t go hard enough and I’m wishing that I had pushed him out of the train,” Fletcher said in his statement. “I feel like my mistake was being too peaceful.”
But defense attorney Dean Smith said it was Fletcher’s attempt to get Christian off the train – which Smith called a felony act – that had provoked the stabbings.
“You don’t like what someone’s shouting, you can shout back,” Smith told the jury. “But you cannot assault someone. You can’t throw them off the MAX because you don’t like what they are saying.”
That will be up to the jury to decide.