MARTINEZ -- It's often hard to understand double murder defendant Nathan Burris because of his slurred speech. But on Thursday, as the Richmond man representing himself in his own death penalty trial cross-examined a police officer, the whole courtroom heard him accidentally incriminate himself as the shooter.
"My back was to you?" Burris asked Marin County Sheriff's Office detective Rebecca Leonard, in response to her eyewitness account of the Aug. 11, 2009, double slaying at the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge toll plaza.
Burris is accused of shooting his ex-girlfriend Deborah Ross, 51, of Richmond, a toll taker at the bridge, and her friend Ersie "Chucky" Everette, 58, of San Leandro.
Before the witness could answer, prosecutor Harold Jewett asked Burris if he had indeed said "my back" when asking whether the officer could make out the shooter at the toll plaza. Burris confirmed he said it, adding, "I mean, it's no mystery."
Burris continued to ask the question, "How can you see the muzzle flash if my back was to you?"
The stunning comments on day two of the capital murder trial sent members of the victims' families running out of court sobbing.
"We all know it's him. It's an insult to all of us. It's a slap in the face," said Ross' sister Ladietra Ross, 51, in the court hallway. "We want justice for both of them, but we have to listen to this person. ... and he's making us relive this incident."
During the lengthy jury selection process, Burris had told prospective jurors he planned to discuss how he had been "justified in what he did," Jewett told Judge John W. Kennedy on Wednesday before opening statements, without jurors present.
Three days after the slayings, in his first court appearance, Burris told a judge, "I'm guilty, I did it ... All I need is the penalty phase. Kill me. Can I please plead guilty and get this over with?"
He also made incriminating statements to investigators shortly after his arrest, Jewett said in opening statements.
Despite those statements, Burris -- who has attorney Larry Barnes advising him -- had vigorously defended himself, cross-examining all the witnesses himself and often questioning how they could have clearly seen the crimes while driving by or looking into the setting sun.
Leonard's testimony also offered the first perspective from the Marin County deputy who, along with a colleague, had been criticized in some circles for their response to the shooting. The two deputies were returning from investigating a burglary in San Pablo when they approached the bridge, and Leonard testified she saw the first shot in the parking lot and then a man with a shotgun running toward the toll booths. She stopped about 800 feet away, blocking oncoming traffic. Leonard testified she saw the man shoot into the toll booth, run back to a van and drive away.
Burris was arrested about nine hours later after a large manhunt.
Jewett asked Leonard why she did not engage the shooter. She explained she was far away, wasn't wearing a protective vest and that drivers were "running across all lanes of traffic" during the rush-hour commute.
"I was unsure if there was more than one person, shooter," she testified.
Leonard eventually drove her unmarked SUV to the toll booths and said she was the first to find a deceased Ross. She identified Burris as the shooter.
Matthew Welsh, a Corte Madera contractor returning from a work site in Richmond, also testified Thursday that he saw the shooter lean into the toll booth, aim the shotgun downward and fire at Ross.
"It was the most sickening, heinous thing I'd ever seen." he said. "That second shot was pure evil the way he stepped into the booth."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.