On a warm summer afternoon, Larry Castro sat at a low table in the tidy Pleasanton classroom where he teaches honors algebra and geometry to middle school students. As the chipper voices of kids flush with excitement after one of the year's final school days drifted in from outside, the affable and politically conservative family man reflected on his experience as an alternate juror in an Oakland death penalty trial. Several months later, Castro said, aspects of the trial still "haunted" and "disturbed" him.
Sometimes Castro had found himself questioning how to decide where the truth lay, hidden between the drastically different arguments of the prosecution and defense. Other times he struggled to relate to the circumstances in which the two murder victims and their killer, Christopher Evans, had lived and grown up. But ultimately, at the end of the trial, he was disappointed in the twelve deliberating jurors' final verdict on whether to recommend a penalty of death or life without parole for Evans. "I think it was the wrong decision," Castro said. "I would have gone a different route."
On the morning of November 23, 2009, double murderer Christopher Evans walked into the downtown Oakland 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. That day he would find out how.
The courtroom was silent. Evans, Nakahara, the two defense attorneys, the deputy district attorney, and the spectators, many of them relatives of Evans' victims, waited for the jury members to enter with their verdict. The jurors came in one by one and 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 ladies and gentlemen come 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 should serve a life-without-parole sentence, or die via California's only remaining method of capital punishment: lethal injection. "All of the questions have been answered, except one," Deputy District Attorney Michael Nieto said to the jury. "What is justice? What does justice call out for in this case? What is the appropriate punishment for Christopher Evans?"
Reaching a unanimous verdict on whether or not to send Evans to death row presented a different challenge than convicting him for the two murders. It depended less on fact and more on jurors' own interpretations of the defendant's sociological, criminal, and family histories, as framed by the prosecuting 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, 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. The murders he committed were two of Oakland's 87 homicides in 2001. This is how those killing took place:
On April 27, 2001, Evans, then 27, was hanging out near the intersection of 85th Avenue and International Boulevard. He had grown up nearby and sold narcotics in the area for some years. Also at that East Oakland junction was a beauty salon owned by 28-year-old Tina Rose, who was acquainted with Evans.
Inside her shop that day, Rose had advised another woman to consider leaving her boyfriend. The woman called her boyfriend to say she might break up with him. The offended beau threatened to come to the salon, so Rose called two of her brothers and asked them to keep watch at the store. That's when Evans entered the situation.
Seeing the unfamiliar men in his neighborhood, the attorneys said, Evans approached one of Rose's brothers and "pocket-checked" him, searching him as a police officer might. An argument ensued between Evans and the brother until Tina Rose came out to defuse the situation and her brother went away. But 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 and slumped against a white car parked nearby. After a friend handed him a 9mm handgun, Evans walked into Tina Rose's salon.
The first person to approach Evans was a 41-year-old father named Tommy Lee Brown. Brown tried to talk him down. Evans shot him twice, with 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.