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Stabbing Trial Raises Questions About Mental Illness, Race-Related Violence

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Portland, Ore., jury selection is underway in the trial of a man who prosecutors say went on a stabbing rampage on a light rail train in 2017. The man, Jeremy Christian, is charged with murder. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson has the story. And a warning - this story does contain some disturbing and offensive language.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: On the day before the stabbings, Jeremy Christian was ranting while he rode a Portland MAX light rail train.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

JEREMY CHRISTIAN: Oh, looks like we got a Christian or Muslim [expletive] bus driver. I'll stab you, too, [expletive]. Move forward.

WILSON: This cellphone video was first reported by the Portland television station KATU. That same day, court documents allege Christian assaulted Demetria Hester. She was riding the light rail train on her way home from work and told Christian he was being offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEMETRIA HESTER: And he replied, you do not have the right to even be on this train. I built this country. You don't have a right to speak. You're black. You don't have a right to be here.

WILSON: Hester, who's black, says Christian, who's white, was also shouting profanity and threatening her. At a news conference months after the attack, Hester said Christian lunged at her and hit her in the eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HESTER: And I grabbed my mace and sprayed him in the face with mace.

WILSON: Police arrived, but Christian slipped away. The next day, court documents say Christian was on a similar rant. This time, it appeared to be directed at two young African American women on the light rail train, one was wearing a hijab. There was shouting, shoving. The situation escalated. Court documents say Christian pulled a folding knife out of his pocket and stabbed three men. Only one of the men survived. Prosecutors charged Christian with two counts of murder in the first degree and one count of attempted murder, as well as assault and intimidation. In court, Christian has denied any wrongdoing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTIAN: Not guilty of anything but defending myself.

WILSON: But there's video of the attacks and multiple witnesses.

KATIE SUVER: Even if your evidence seems very good, you still have to be very careful.

WILSON: Katie Suver is the deputy district attorney in Marion County, Ore. She's not involved in Christian's trial but supervises her office's major criminal cases, like murder.

SUVER: Even if your evidence seems really good, the defendant can still raise all possible defenses, particularly as it relates to the mental state to commit a crime.

WILSON: Records from Christian's previous arrests and interviews with people who knew him since childhood indicate his mental health was clearly declining for years leading up to the attacks.

JEFFREY ELLIS: The law places a great deal of focus on the why question.

WILSON: Jeffrey Ellis is an attorney and co-director of the Oregon Capital Resource Center. He's not involved in Christian's defense but says there are a lot of factors that can go into defending against intent, like negligence or diminished capacity.

ELLIS: In other words, you were suffering from a mental illness that was so severe that you weren't able to form the intent.

WILSON: Even years later, for those in Portland who take public transit, the murders have had a lasting impact.

EQRA RAZA: We were, like, scared. We were, like - we literally couldn't believe it.

WILSON: Eqra Raza (ph) is 18 years old. She takes public transportation to her Islamic high school in a Portland suburb.

RAZA: We couldn't even put into words what had happened because we were like, there could've been any chance that that would've been us.

WILSON: Federal law enforcement officials say their investigation into the murders is still open and will make any charging decisions after the state's trial is done.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE EVPATORIA REPORT'S "NAPTALAN - BONUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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