OAKLAND -- The murder case against Julius Scott contains numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence that a prosecutor said Monday point to a certain conviction for first-degree murder.
But the case is missing a motive and a murder weapon, two factors that a defense attorney argued are reasons why the jury should find Scott, 27, not guilty of murder for killing Shanika Latham, 20, on Aug. 24, 2012, and not guilty of attempted murder for allegedly shooting her boyfriend.
Scott, a felon and drug dealer, was arrested about a month after Latham, of Alameda, was shot. He was identified by Latham's boyfriend as the shooter.
The boyfriend, Lawrence Nero, was driving a white Honda Prelude with Latham in the passenger seat when the shooting occurred near the corner of 48th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in East Oakland. Nero had driven to the scene, he testified, to buy drugs from Scott.
Instead, Nero testified, Scott walked up to the passenger side of his car, pulled his shirt over the bottom of his face and began firing a handgun into the car. At least five shots were fired, two of which hit Latham in the head, killing her.
Nero was also shot but managed to drive to Highland Hospital where he was treated and then spoke with police days later and identified Scott as the shooter.
Nero's description of the actions Scott took just before the shooting matched a video taken from a surveillance camera at a nearby market. The video shows an unidentified man waiting behind a car, and then when Nero's drives by, walking out of view of the camera toward Nero's car.
Nero's testimony also matches phone records that showed Nero spoke with Scott about 20 minutes before the shooting. Nero said he talked with Scott about buying drugs at 12:30 a.m. on the corner of 48th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard.
But Nero could not say why he thought Scott would want him dead and defense attorney Jo Ann Kingston said that lack of motive should give the jury pause as it deliberates the serious crime of murder. Kingston also urged the jury to question Nero's identification, asking them to imagine being in a situation where bullets are flying through your car window.
Kingston said the real motive in the case comes from a dispute Nero had with Donnel Artis, another felon who was upset with Nero about testimony Nero gave in a murder case almost a decade ago.
The same phone records that show Nero and Scott supposedly setting up a drug deal also show that Scott and Artis talked just before Nero was shot.
Testifying in his own defense, Scott said that Artis had asked to notify him the next time he was to meet with Nero. The calls that are recorded on phone logs are Scott notifying Artis about the midnight drug transaction, Scott said.
But Scott testified that the drug deal never happened because he heard shots just before he was going to leave his girlfriend's apartment to meet with Nero. The girlfriend's apartment is just a few blocks from the scene of the murder.
Kingston said Scott's testimony coupled with the fact that Artis might have a motive for trying to kill Nero provides the jury with a reasonable conclusion to the evidence presented at trial and thus they must vote not guilty.
A third man, Pedro Bell, who also knows Artis, was also at the scene of the shooting but testified that he had been there by coincidence. Kingston speculated that Bell might also have been involved in the killing.
"There is a guy out there (who) could be sitting at (the defense table) who could be prosecuted and he still can," Kingston said, referring to Artis. "The defense theory is reasonable."
Deputy District Attorney Autrey James, however, said Scott's testimony and the possible motive he suggested only proves that Scott might have attempted to kill Nero on orders from Artis. Or, at the very least, is an aider and abettor to first-degree murder for setting up an ambush kill. And, under the law, even though Latham might not have been the target of the killing, her shooting death can be first-degree murder because she died while the shooter was trying to kill Nero.
"Mr. Artis is just a red herring in this case," James said. "(Scott) wasn't setting up a drug deal, he was setting up a murder."