MARTINEZ -- Jury selection has begun in the death penalty trial for a 49-year-old Richmond man defending himself against murder charges in a 2009 double homicide at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza.
Nathan Burris is accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, 51-year-old Caltrans toll collector Deborah Ann Ross, and her friend, Ersie Everette III, a 58-year-old Golden Gate Transit bus driver from San Leandro, on Aug. 11, 2009, during the early evening commute. Opening statements are scheduled for Oct. 24.
It is the first capital trial in Contra Costa County since former Sacramento County resident Edward Wycoff was sentenced to death in 2009 for the planned home invasion ambush killings of his sister and brother-in-law in El Cerrito three years prior. The Contra Costa DA's Office has not announced an intention to seek the death penalty in any other of its pending murder cases.
Just like Wycoff, Burris has exercised his constitutional right to act as his own attorney, and is being tried before Contra Costa Superior Court Judge John Kennedy. Like Wycoff, Burriss will have a private attorney acting as his advisory counsel.
Burris' adviser, former prosecutor and death penalty expert Larry Barnes, is expected to take a more hands-on role than the attorney who aided Wycoff, because Burris' speech can sometimes be difficult to understand.
Burris is being prosecuted by Chief Assistant District Attorney Harold Jewett, who was California District Attorney Association's "Prosecutor of the Year" for 2007, the same year he convinced a jury to send a grocery store robber to death row for the 2005 killing of Pittsburg police Officer Larry Lasater.
Kennedy's court has summoned 400 Contra Costa County residents from which to chose a jury. If the jury of 12 convicts Burris of first-degree murder with a special allegation the trial will move into the penalty phase, where the two sides would argue over the death penalty versus life in prison without possibility or parole. The special allegations that make him eligible for capital punishment are multiple murders and lying in wait. Burris' trial will likely still be in the evidence phase when voters go to the polls Nov. 6 to decide on Proposition 34, a ballot measure that would abolish the death penalty in California.
Ironically, a visibly distraught Burris begged a judge to give him the death penalty during his first court appearance on the charges. "I'm guilty, I did it," Burris said from a courtroom holding cell Aug. 14, 2009, three days after the shootings. "All I need is the penalty phase. Kill me.
"Can I please plead guilty and get this over with?"
Authorities have said Burris was angry over his break up with Ross and jealous of her friendship with Everette. He purportedly set up the killings by slashing the tires of Everette's truck while it was parked in the toll plaza lot and then waited as he watched from afar with binoculars.
Once Everette returned to the lot to discover his damaged tires, he called roadside assistance. As he waited in his vehicle, prosecutors say Burris drove through the toll plaza and asked another toll collector which stall Ross was in. Then, according to police and prosecutors, he returned to the lot, shot Everette, then ran to Ross' booth and shot her, too.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.