Morgan Junction murder trial begins: Unprovoked attack or self-defense? Opposing lawyers preview their casesFebruary 19, 2014 at 11:58 pm | In Crime, West Seattle news | 20 Comments
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
No one disputes that longtime Gatewood resident Lovett “Cid” Chambers fired the shots that killed recent West Seattle arrival (Michael) Travis Hood by Morgan Junction Park on January 21, 2012.
The question to be settled is why – and whether he is guilty of murder.
After six weeks of motions and jury selection, the heart of Chambers’ trial began this afternoon in the courtroom of King County Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle. Jury selection concluded before lunch; afterward, prosecution and defense lawyers presented their opening statements.
Their styles and stories contrasted dramatically.
First, the basic backstory as reported here. The incident unfolded – with much initial confusion resulting – at two locations that night.
That’s the red pickup truck in which Hood’s friend Jamie Vause drove him to the Providence Mount St. Vincent retirement/rehab center, believing it was a hospital. That’s where emergency responders first learned someone had been shot – but the shooting itself took place more than a mile southwest:
As reported in WSB as-it-happened coverage that night, we also had received reports of gunshots heard in Morgan Junction, and police quickly converged there to look for evidence. Hours later, in the early morning, SPD confirmed Chambers’ arrest, and family members confirmed Hood’s death. Four days after the shooting, Chambers was charged with first-degree murder (last August, that was reduced to second-degree).
No clear story emerged of what preceded the gunfire. And today in court, two very different versions were told.
With about 20 people in the gallery – including some close to people at the center of the case – and the jury box holding the 12 jurors plus three alternates, the lawyers began to make their cases. Chambers took notes, seated at the defense table, wearing a dark suit and bow tie (photo in our short update published earlier).
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mari Isaacson was first, speaking for about 35 minutes after maneuvering into place a large monitor on which she showed photos.
“The defendant was drunk, armed with a semi-automatic pistol … at 9:30 on a cool January night, after drinking heavily, he left a bar, got his gun from his car, and he murdered a stranger named Travis Hood with two shots in the back,” Isaacson began.
Before the backstory of what preceded that, Isaacson lobbed a pre-emptive strike, saying Chambers’ lawyers were expected to say he acted in self-defense, and promising to “disprove” that through witness testimony.
She then offered context as another pre-emptive strike to the defense contention that the shooting was preceded by racist insults – describing Hood and Vause as from the South, “rough around the edges … Some might think of these men as rednecks, some might describe them as ‘good ol’ white boys from the South,’ some might even call them white trash.”
Hood had just opened his first bank account at age 35, Isaacson said, while working at Charlie’s Produce. He had just gotten paid that night, and went out with his friend, with whom, she said, he routinely would go out, drink, “smoke some weed.” That night they had gone to the (now defunct) Rocksport, but found it too crowded, so they went to Feedback Lounge, where they had never been before. “They realized they didn’t really fit in,” she said, describing them as taking a table by themselves in the back.
Chambers was there too, “a regular.” She said they didn’t come into contact, but that Vause noticed Chambers standing “in that separate room,” and when they left, he was “standing not too far from the door, almost as if he was waiting for them.”
The prosecution’s version of what happened next:
Vause noticed Hood walking down Beveridge Place, the short street between the same-name pub and the Feedback, and called out that he was going the wrong way. Vause got to the truck first, got in, opened the passenger door, saw Hood walking toward the truck – “but he was not alone.” Chambers was following Hood, she said, and gaining: “What neither Jamie nor Travis knew at that time is that the defendant had armed himself with a semi-automatic Colt pistol” – not carried while he was in the bar but retrieved from his BMW after he left.
“Travis turned and said something over his shoulder to the defendant. Words were exchanged. Jamie couldn’t hear. He thought maybe Travis was inviting the guy to come smoke some weed with them. … The defendant had followed Travis nearly 200 feet from the bar to where the truck was … right behind him when Travis got to the truck. (Travis) grabbed a shovel that was in the bed of the truck – Jamie had it with him to dig the truck out of the snow” – it had indeed snowed earlier – “Travis held it in a batter stance, said, ‘Whaddaya gonna do now?’ He did not swing the shovel. The defendant answered with his gun – pulled it out of his coat pocket, aimed it at Travis’s torso. When he saw it, he yelled, ‘Watch out, dawg, he’s got a gun!’ (Travis) tried to take cover in the truck. It was too late. THe defendant fired. Every bullet hit Travis’s body … one hit an artery and killed him.”
She spoke of another witness (who will be seen on video, as he now works overseas and could not leave his job for the trial) and spoke of what he says he saw: “The defendant’s behavior after the shooting was remarkable. He calmly put the gun away … started walking down the street … got into his blue BMW, pulled a U-turn, driving northbound on California” – opposite direction from his home – “didn’t seem panicked, didn’t even seem afraid.” A friend got Chambers’ plate number and gave it to police, she said, reiterating that this witness didn’t see “any kind of ruckus, no altercation .. nothing out of the ordinary until he saw the shooting.”
As previously reported, bar staff knew Chambers’ identity, and police reached his home quickly. There, the prosecutor said, they found guns on the kitchen table, and cartridges, including some that matched the casings found at the shooting scene. Interviewed at police headquarters, she said, he was “not confused, not afraid … he was strategizing what he told them and what he did not tell them.”
She again mentioned his intoxication – “Around 3:30 that morning, long after he left the bar, his (blood-alcohol level) was 22″ – almost three times the legal-drunkenness level. She said Chambers asked at one point during police questioning, “So how many times did I shoot that son of a bitch?” She said police checked the scene for “signs of a scuffle … there was nothing.”
Close to the end of her opening statement, Isaacson said, “At the end of the day, you’ll wonder why the defendant shot Travis. You’re never going to get the answer – you’ll probably always wonder. You don’t have to decide motive – just guilt.”
After a 15-minute break, defense lawyer Lauren McLane began her presentation at about 3:08 pm.
She referred throughout to Vause and Hood by their given names – Jonathan and Michael, respectively – rather than the names by which they went.
McLane began with the end of Chambers’ visit to the Feedback Lounge, saying goodbye to “his friends and the staff he’d known for years. He started to walk to his car. He thought he was alone.” But as he crossed an alleyway, she said, he saw Vause and Hood. “These two men that Mr. Chambers had never met or seen started to hurl vile racial epithets at him. They followed him to his car and tried to break into his car. The last thing Mr. Chambers was looking for that night was any sort of confrontation. But when Hood picked up that five-foot shovel, with a look of rage in his eyes, saying, ‘Now I’m gonna knock your n—er head off,’ when he did that, Mr. Chambers had no choice but to defend himself.
She then backed up to the start of Chambers’ day, recounting a contract he had secured for his IT company, something she said he had started late in life, after going back to school. He told his wife about it, and then, she said, they talked about wanting to support an upcoming fundraiser for an animal-advocacy group they thought was happening that night at Beveridge Place Pub, next to the Feedback. After running some errands, she said, he went to BPP, and found out the auction was the next night and also would be happening next door at the Feedback, so he went there, a place he had been many times: “A nice, quiet, safe neighborhood bar, a mile and a half from his house. He used to go up to four times a week … to hang out with friends there, enjoy good martinis in a nice atmosphere.” McLane said he even had his own seat, “Cid’s seat,” where he sat on that night and visited with staffers. Ultimately, she said, he stayed longer than planned, after a friend called, and had at least five martinis. “By all accounts, he was having a good time … you’re not going to hear from anyone in the bar that nght that he was falling down drunk (or) wasted.”
Then – the defense account of the fateful few minutes outside:
“As (Chambers) crossed the alleyway, Vause and Hood came up from behind him.” She made the same point as the defense, that they had never been there before. She made a point of saying a friend with whom they usually went out had been banned from the Feedback. She also echoed the prosecution point of the friends drinking beer, smoking marijuana.
She said they came up on Chambers from behind and said, “Look at this n—er here, who taught him to walk like that, his mammy must have taught him to walk like that.” She continued, “(He) was the only black person there. It was not the first time he had been called this kind of despicable thing … just two drunk ignorant guys … he wasn’t looking to start anything … just wanted to get home. … So he walked to his car, around the car in front of his, to create space between him and these two men.”
In her version, Chambers got into his car, started to buckle his seat belt, then one of the other two men “yanked open the passenger-side door … appeared to be trying to get into the car … reaching into his waistband for what looked like a knife.” She said Chambers had no idea what was going on, and then, someone started to bang on the trunk of his car. She told of the ensuing moments, with Chambers having trouble with his car keys, trouble starting the car, “there he was feeling like a sitting duck, vulnerable, (thinking) these two men could attack him at any time with a knife … so he grabbed his gun and got out.” He encountered one of the men, she said, and was trying to figure out where the other one was, as if he was being set up.
Hood got to the red pickup truck, she said, noting that Chambers did not know it belonged to “the men who had been threatening them.”
Here, she used her one and only prop – the shovel, wielding it in the “batting” stance both she and the prosecution said Hood had used. “He picked it up, turned around, with rage in his face, (shovel blade) turned upward, (said) ‘Now I’m going to knock your ni—r head off.” (McLane was shouting by this point.) “When Mr. Chambers heard that, saw that, he knew he was going to die right there on the sidewalk. He pulled out his gun, shot toward Hood four times – struck (him) three times …(he) fell backward into the pickup truck, and that’s when the shovel dropped to the curb.”
She said Chambers had no memory of firing the shots or anything else that happened until he got to his home in Gatewood and was arrested, after police knocked on the door, which he opened and then was swept away, with police coming in to search, much to his wife’s bewilderment. She said he was read his rights but “didn’t want to talk.”
That figured into his side of the story, particularly after detectives ordered that he be taken downtown and placed into a small, enclosed, windowless room at 12:30 am. McLane said that “though he had said he didn’t want to talk, (a detective) read him his rights again, and started asking questions.” At one point when he asked to see a photo of Hood, he was taken back to that small room and questioned. This is on video, she said, and will be shown to the jury. Counterpoint to the prosecution’s suggestion Chambers had strategized everything he said, McLane said, “Everything that happened in that room had purpose” – where the detectives sit, where the suspects sit.
She launched into the elaborate explanation for Chambers’ actions in that room: “From the time he was 11 years old, it was demonstrated to him that police were a source of racism, indifference, violence.”
She spoke of his childhood in Indianapolis in the first half of the 20th century, “when our country was still racially segregated, raised by his mother after his father died, solo until she remarried an “alcoholic, verbally abusive man” when Chambers was 11. From there, she said, he spent more time away from home, and started committing petty crimes, with his first contact with police at that age.
He was tortured them by being stripped and handcuffed to a radiator with the heat turned up, “sweating him out.” He was beaten, she said. In 7th grade, he went to juvenile detention, where boys raped each other, and where sadistic staff beat the boys in particularly torturous ways. The stories of brutality built through his time in the notorious San Quentin Prison, starting in 1966 – “Now THAT was a turbulent time,” she observed. Violent prison gangs, deadly violence, cruel staffers. And the litany went on. That, McLane reiterated is why Chambers did not trust police, including those he was with in “Interrogation Room #1″ at SPD headquarters the night of the shooting.
“The government is not going to present you with a shred of credible evidence that Chambers was doing anything but protecting himself.” She called Vause the prosecution’s “one credible witness,” “a bigot,” and “a liar (who) can’t keep his story straight.” She alleged police “did not canvass California Avenue for additional witnesses” and did not properly handle Chambers’s car in a way that would have preserved any DNA evidence from the alleged break-in attempt that night. She said defense witnesses would include a DNA expert to speak to that, and a psychologist who evaluated Chambers and says he has post-traumatic stress disorder that “was at work” the night of the shooting.
She concluded after about 45 minutes, and the jurors were sent home for the day. Earlier, they had been solemnly instructed by Judge Doyle to stay away from local news – online, on TV, printed, any kind – and to avoid any discussion of the case, to all but run away if they even think they hear it being discussed.
WHAT’S NEXT: The first witness is expected to be called shortly after court resumes at 9 am Thursday. Trials usually are in session four days a week, Mondays-Thursdays, as judges have other proceedings, such as sentencings, on Fridays.
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