PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — An experienced court reporter might tell you that no two trials are exactly the same. Or at least, that’s what they told me, a relatively young general assignment reporter sent to cover what may well be the highest-profile Oregon murder trial in almost a decade.
I’ll be the first to tell you I wasn’t prepared on the first day. I ran out of laptop battery before the first lunch break and resorted to taking paper notes, then frantically transcribing them once I got to the hallway and the one power strip in the third floor hallway. I didn’t put enough time codes in my notes, making it difficult for the TV crews to find good soundbites. I wrote the wrong lawyer’s name for several pages before I realized the mistake.
The one thing I got right was showing up outside the Multnomah County Courthouse 15 minutes before it opened. Our newsroom (correctly) predicted there would be a large media presence on day one of trial proceedings and we knew there were limited seats reserved for reporters. Being first meant I was in the front row, directly behind the defense team, when Jeremy Christian was brought in by Multnomah County deputies.
“You guys ready to smash Portland’s fairy tale?” Christian asked before his hands were uncuffed and he took his seat. A month later, he left the courtroom silently after being unanimously convicted on all 12 counts of murder, attempted murder, assault, intimidation, unlawful use of a weapon, and menacing.
It’s interesting sitting so close to someone accused of such horrible crimes. I wasn’t living in Oregon when the MAX stabbings happened in 2017, but I remembered seeing the chopper video over the platform, then Christian’s bizarre outbursts in his early court appearances.
He was more reserved than I expected during the trial. Sure he nodded and even laughed numerous times while the jury and audience watched and listened to videos of him ranting inside the police car on the way to jail. He seemed particularly amused by seeing his past self say things like, “That’s alright, it’s called freedom … You don’t like it, go to Mexico” and “Kali Yuga bitches.”
But aside from interrupting Shawn Forde and Detective Michele Michaels’ testimony, Christian had relatively few outbursts. His lawyers seemed good at reigning him in. And when the jury wasn’t in the room, when attorneys, deputies, reporters, observers and one very stressed looking clerk were the only ones around, Christian and his lawyers chatted and even laughed at things he said.
In general, the atmosphere was more relaxed before court was in session and during recesses. Defense attorney Greg Scholl could be seen talking amicably with prosecutors, a stark difference from some of the heated exchanges jurors saw.
Once the video camera (just one, with a feed delivered to the other outlets) was rolling, though, the mood changed. Victims’ family members were openly sobbing during the prosecution’s graphic description of how Christian stabbed Micah Fletcher, then Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and Ricky Best. Fletcher left the courtroom during those opening statements, an action he would repeat weeks later during closing arguments.
The prosecution kept that emotion going strong, calling Walia Mohamed and Destinee Mangum to the stand that first day. Both cried several times as they relived the trauma that happened on the MAX train. Mangum looked shaken after prosecutors played cell phone video she recorded, revealing the girls’ escalation from annoyance to fear to terror.
The sheer amount of video evidence in this case was stunning. Countless people on MAX train car 415 recorded bits of Christian’s rant, the stabbing, the aftermath of the platform, and even the moment police closed in on him. TriMet cameras on the train and platform provided additional, albeit soundless, perspectives.
The jury and victims’ loved ones saw three men get stabbed over and over and over again. They saw it slowed down 50% and they saw it broken up into frames. They heard Micah Fletcher scream for help as he staggered off the train, holding his neck. They saw autopsy photos as the medical examiner described precisely which stab wounds killed them and how. They saw a 30+ minute video of Christian continuing to rant while in the back of a police car with a spit hood over his head. He talked about “airing motherfu**er’s throats out,” spouted off about religion, and berated the police, calling one officer the N-word several times.
Some spectators looked understandably disgusted and alarmed by all of this. The jurors were remarkably composed, leaning in to view the video and taking diligent notes throughout the entire trial. There were 12 jurors and two alternates, though their number decreased when one young woman informed the judge that her work would not be paying for her time spent on the jury like she was originally told. Of the remaining jurors there were eight men, five women. One man was black and everyone else was white.
Of the witnesses who testified, Micah Fletcher was the most highly anticipated. Everyone in the courtroom gave him their undivided attention. And they laughed at some of his responses to questioning, like when prosecutors asked about the statement he gave to police right after the incident.
Howes: “You had recently been stabbed in the neck.”
Fletcher: “And recently pumped full of drugs, yes.”
Howes: “Probably not the best time to get an accurate response from you?”
Fletcher: “Arguably the worst.”
I asked Micah’s mom about that after his testimony. She chuckled a little and said the matter-of-fact responses were “typical Micah” and a result of his autism.
The courtroom was fullest during opening statements, closing arguments and, of course, when the verdict was read. But sitting in a courtroom for nearly four weeks straight is unsustainable for most people who aren’t getting paid to be there, so as the days went on, the victims’ side of the courtroom became more sparsely populated. Even the reporters got some room to spread out in their benches.
One person who never failed to show up, though, even on the boring days when lawyers just filed motions or debated jury instructions… Christian’s mother.
She had two reserved front row seats, the second presumably for Christian’s father, but sat alone every day of the trial. I didn’t realize who she was until I asked someone in the know for a description and they responded by informing me that I had been sitting right next to her every day.
Watching her reactions to the videos and the testimony was one of the most gut-wrenching parts of covering the trial. She never made a sound, but her face was broken.
News is my job, but it is someone else’s life. It is someone else’s father, brother, son, nephew, friend who didn’t make it home from their daily commute. Who never called back, even though they said they would.
It is someone else waking up every day knowing that her son is responsible for this.
Now that the main part of the trial is over, I get to go home, pour a drink, and watch frivolous TV shows to take my mind off what I saw and heard. But it’s not that easy for the people who were on the MAX that afternoon almost three years ago. It’s not that easy for their loved ones. But hopefully, the delivery of a verdict gets them one step closer to peace.