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.
For Castro, the alternate juror, seeing close-up images of the dead bodies and blood-smeared salon on the trial’s first day was tough. “I didn’t sleep well for a week,” he later recalled. “I’d see a color and I’d flash back to a photo that I did not want to flash back to.” Castro glanced around his cheerily decorated classroom. “Even now, just talking about it, I can see things that I haven’t thought about in months.” He said it’s unusual for him to focus on violence and gore, “but even if I do watch a show like CSI, nothing’s real. This was.”
As the trial wore on Castro became less haunted by the photos, but grew frustrated weighing a death versus life sentence amid the lawyers’ spin game. “It’s like politics,” he said. “You’re trying to gain the truth when you’ve got two sides that are just spouting things they think you want to hear.” He raised his palms and shrugged. “Where’s the truth in that?”
Tina Rose’s mother, Mary Rose, is a short woman with graying black hair. The day Michael Nieto called her to the witness stand she was shrouded in a hooded black leather jacket that draped down below her hips. She walked slowly past the bar, raised her right hand, and was sworn in by the court clerk.
“You are the mother of Tina Rose,” Nieto said. “Correct?”
Mary Rose nodded slowly, her face drawn.
“And how many children do you have?” Nieto asked.
Mary Rose raised a long-fingered hand to her face and began to sob.
Over the next several minutes, Nieto showed a series of photographs: Tina Rose as a young child, standing in the sun with brothers, sisters, and cousins. A portrait of Tina, grown up, looking pretty, and smiling radiantly. Her coffin, surrounded by family members in an Alabama cemetery. Mary Rose described how she still celebrates her daughter’s birthday each year. She told how Tina loved to dance, and sang in their church choir. She said Tina had used earnings from her job at another hair salon to finally open a shop of her own.
Nieto asked Mary Rose to describe the impact of her daughter’s murder on her own life. Rose began to sob again. Her hand trembled in front of her face. “That’s everything,” she said, her voice quiet and raspy. “I can’t sleep at night. I have to be on medication that makes me go to sleep at night.” She pointed across the room, where Christopher Evans slouched next to his defense attorneys. “That monster, what he did to my daughter. He did not have to kill my daughter. That monster, I never seen him before in my life.” Other Rose relatives sobbed quietly in the court’s public seating area.
Asked outside the courtroom a couple weeks later what she would decide if the verdict were up to her, Mary Rose answered matter-of-factly, “I would say death.”
Later in the trial, Christopher Evans’ mother and daughter testified as well. Evans’ mother described for over an hour the tough circumstances in which her son grew up, her voice strong and clear when she wasn’t shedding tears. His father was absent, she said, and she was clueless about how to raise a child. Deaths in the family and academic struggles — “He just couldn’t comprehend” — further alienated Evans, and he dropped out of high school and began selling drugs, she added. Defense attorney Alexander Selvin called Evans’ story “the cycle of the young man from Oakland who has no skills.”
Evans fathered a daughter a few years after dropping out. Now thirteen years old, she took the witness stand about a week after her grandmother. Round-faced and wearing a pink headband, she smiled when identifying Evans as her dad. Questioned by Selvin, she described a father who has “always been there for me” despite being incarcerated most of her life.
“I beg you from the bottom of my heart and soul to please, please, please, please, please, please, please don’t give my dad the death penalty,” she implored the jury.
Selvin asked Evans’ daughter one final question. She looked across the courtroom at her father, smiled, then bowed her head and began to cry. “I don’t want to lose my father,” she said between sobs. “He’s a very important person in my life.”
She left the stand still in tears. Her waiting mother put an arm around her shoulders as they walked down the aisle and left the courtroom. Christopher Evans turned around in his seat and craned his neck to watch them go, wide-eyed and blinking hard, apparently seeking eye contact. A bailiff shook his head sternly and tapped Evans on the shoulder. He turned back around. NO COMMUNICATION WITH INMATES PURS. 4570 PENAL CODE, said a sign posted in the courtroom.
Throughout it all, Larry Castro looked on from the jury box. He would later say the testimonies from Mary Rose and Christopher Evans’ daughter were among the most powerful and emotionally persuasive moments of the trial.
To grant the parting wish of Evans’ daughter, the jury would have to believe a couple key points in the defense argument. The first was that, because of the knockout blow from Tina Rose’s brother, Evans had sustained a serious concussion and was therefore in an altered state of consciousness that hampered any awareness of what he was doing when he shot Rose and Brown. “His mind was Jell-O and Swiss cheese,” defense attorney William DuBois repeated throughout the trial. DuBois and Selvin also argued the violent outburst was an anomaly; that Evans had rarely been in altercations beforehand and he was a relatively model citizen while incarcerated and awaiting trial.
But Nieto intended to paint a very different picture of Evans’ behavior, both in and out of jail. One of the ways he did this was by highlighting a June 2008 jailhouse incident in which Evans and his cellmate, a man named Marcus Jones, allegedly beat another inmate. Jones, a bulky man with a heavy brow, had since been released and, when Nieto called him to the stand, he wore a shiny silver watch and a bulbous silver ring on his left pinky finger.
Nieto asked Jones if he saw his former cellmate Evans in court.
Jones looked over at the jury, up at the ceiling, and down towards the floor, his head swiveling elaborately. “No,” he said.
Nieto directed Jones’ attention to the defense table, where Evans sat with his lawyers.
“I do see him,” Jones said.
Jones testified that he and the third inmate had indeed fought, but that it was a “mutual battle,” and that Evans had actually tried to break up the fight rather than join in. Nieto asked Jones if the fight was about the third inmate having snitched on someone else, but Jones said no. Nieto asked what he thought of snitching in general.
“Off the top of my head, I don’t really see it as a bad thing,” Jones said.
Nieto asked how snitching is perceived among inmates.
“In jailhouse terms, I wouldn’t believe it’d be a good thing,” Jones said.
“Snitches get hurt?” Nieto asked.
“Snitches get killed,” Nieto said.
“So do ordinary people,” Jones replied.
The intersection of 85th Avenue and International Boulevard, where Christopher Evans spent most of his life until 2001, lies deep in East Oakland, just past the Oakland Coliseum toward the San Leandro border. It’s a neighborhood of small businesses, barred windows, and barking front-yard dogs. Sedans cruise speed-bumped streets on oversized rims while their stereos vibrate the air and rattle windows. A few haggard-looking and shabbily dressed men and women sit on boxes on the sidewalk. The police beats surrounding 85th and International rank among Oakland’s most dangerous.
It’s a place where there are “a lot of youngsters who have no life of privilege,” a longtime neighborhood business owner who had known both Evans and Rose testified during the trial. “The death penalty is also on the streets for these kids,” she said. “It’s imposed daily.”
Tina Rose and Tommy Lee Brown had learned that firsthand, more than eight years earlier. And back in Judge Nakahara’s downtown courtroom on November 23, Christopher Evans waited to learn whether the same penalty would be imposed upon him by the State of California.
As the bailiff called Department Eight to order, the jury filed in — ready to deliver the verdict Larry Castro would disagree with. Evans sat slouched at the defense table, DuBois and Selvin to his right. Nieto sat alone in a pinstriped suit at the table next to them. In the public seating area behind where Nieto sat, relatives of Rose and Brown filled two rows. Newly appointed Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who had arrived to watch, sat across the aisle.
Nakahara asked who the jury’s foreperson was. A slender middle-aged man with glasses and neatly parted gray hair raised his hand from the box’s second row.
“It is my understanding the jury has reached a verdict, is that correct?” Nakahara asked.
“Yes, sir,” the foreman answered.
The foreman handed an envelope to the bailiff, who walked it over to the court clerk. The clerk stood and read the verdict aloud: “We, the jury, fix the penalty for Christopher Evans at death.”
Evans, DuBois, and Selvin gave no visible reaction. The crowd in the courtroom was silent, though many would hug one another later on outside. The jurors left the box, crossed the courtroom in a line, and filed out one by one. Nieto and O’Malley shook hands and hugged. DuBois and Selvin slipped out of the courtroom together, talking quietly. Evans was led out the side door through which he had entered, to return in April for his formal sentencing before Judge Nakahara. After that he would join some seven hundred other inmates on California’s death row.
Back at the low table in his tidy Pleasanton classroom earlier this summer, Larry Castro explained why he would have lobbied against a death sentence had he been in the deliberation room with the other jurors. The main reason, he said, was the defense argument that Evans had been acting without control after the concussive blow from Tina Rose’s brother.
“I work with honors kids,” he said. “I’ve seen it take weeks or months for them to come all the way back from a bad head injury, so I’m not sure I buy the idea that you’re fully aware in those first two minutes after a concussion. But even that one could argue all day, because all you get in court is two different viewpoints.”
Cheerful shouts and laughter filtered in from outside Castro’s classroom, signaling the end of the school year and months of summer camps and family vacations to come.
“One of the things that came out over and over in the trial was I’m living in a different world than they were living in,” Castro said of Evans, his victims, and many of the testifying witnesses. “I know we’re only thirty miles apart, but it’s a different world.”
Castro looked around his empty classroom. “What have these kids done to deserve to have been born in Pleasanton instead of those parts of Oakland?” he asked. “Sometimes that’s just good luck.”
Asked if sitting on the jury of such a long and high-stakes trial had changed his opinion on capital punishment, Castro paused for several moments. “I can see now how just reading a short news clip could make me think, ‘Get rid of him; that’s human trash and there’s no reason to keep him around,'” he said finally.
Castro continued, though, that sitting through the entire trial and learning the back-stories and extenuating circumstances involved had broadened his perspective. “I think it has made me more hesitant,” he said, before stammering as he tried to think of what to say next. “The whole thing’s a tragedy, but I don’t know that it’s worth adding another life to the tragedy.”