Exactly two weeks after the trial began, an Alameda County Superior Court jury found Anthony Durant guilty of gunning down his childhood friend Christian Sheppard during a dice game in South Berkeley in 2015.
The jury found Durant guilty last week of second-degree murder, along with unlawful firearm activity. He could face a sentence of 40 years to life.
Durant himself took the stand in his own defense to describe how, he said, a masked gunman suddenly appeared to rob him and Sheppard but instead took Sheppard’s life, while taking none of his many valuables: a gold Michael Kors watch on his wrist, $120 in his pocket or his diamond chain. The jury was not convinced and, after deliberating over several days for perhaps eight hours, brought back a guilty verdict last week Tuesday, Jan. 31.
“We got justice for Haylee and Lyric,” said Robert Hunter, one of Sheppard’s three older brothers, after the verdict came in. The two little girls are Sheppard’s daughters. Sheppard’s mother, and other family and friends, who attended the trial daily, said they would like to wait until after the March 24 sentencing to speak further to the media.
Defense attorney George Arroyo, with the Alameda County public defender’s office, said there’s more work to be done.
“Although I am disappointed by the result, I respect the jury’s decision and look forward to filing an appeal,” he said. Several members of Durant’s family, including his mother and grandmother — who attended the entire trial — politely declined to comment outside the courtroom at the René C. Davidson Courthouse after the verdict had been read.
Jimmie Wilson, who prosecuted the case for the Alameda County district attorney’s office, said he told the defendant’s mother he took no pleasure in the conviction.
“I come from this community, and I hate to see the violence that we see over and over and over again,” he said. “These are two lives that are lost, and they’re lost because of gun violence.”
During opening statements when the trial began Jan. 17, before Judge C. Don Clay, Wilson played Sheppard’s call to 911 as he fought for his life behind a South Berkeley apartment building where he and friends frequently played dice. He’s shouting and groaning, and — though the audio was difficult to make out — he struggled to say something like, “I got shot.”
Wilson described Sheppard’s death as violent, gruesome and unnecessary, and said Durant “executed his friend,” firing 16 bullets at him. The type of gun used in the murder required the shooter to pull the trigger 16 times. The autopsy revealed 21 entry and exit wounds in Sheppard’s body.
“Anthony Durant is a murderer, pure and simple,” Wilson said, during opening statements. “The evidence will show he is a violent human being.… There was no other reason for this crime but his anger.”
Sheppard and Durant met when they were children and remained friends and schoolmates throughout their lives. At the time of the shooting, they were both 24. There was some indication in court that there had been a recent falling out, perhaps over money, but minimal evidence to that end was presented.
According to witness testimony, the young men met up earlier in the day with another friend to hang out, talk and smoke marijuana. They went by the Rosewood apartments, in the 1600 block of Russell Street, and met up with some other people for a regular dice game next door behind 1611 Russell. It’s a good spot for a game because the location isn’t visible from the street, and there are many ways to get in and out, including holes in the fence into the Rosewood complex where many of the players had ties.
None of the witnesses who testified said they saw the shooting itself. One neighbor, who knew Durant, said she saw him with Sheppard before and after the shooting, heard Durant talking in an angry voice just before the gunfire, and that Sheppard and Durant were alone together just before the shooting. She also saw Durant running away, past her window, right after shots were fired.
Neighbors said it took some time for first responders to arrive. One estimated 15 minutes. In the meantime, people gathered outside at the Rosewood, screaming and crying as they tried to figure out what had taken place. One witness said she heard someone say, “Christian, get up. Fight for your life!” Other voices screamed Durant’s name.
Kenneth Joubert, a 26-year-old father of three and Berkeley High graduate from 2009, testified he had been with Durant and Sheppard earlier in the day, and went with them to the dice game. He said he and another friend left the game before the shooting, but ran back when they heard gunfire.
He recalled yelling to Christian from the Rosewood, “Get up, stand up, the ambulance is on its way!” He remembered a lot of noise and confusion, and “people in disbelief.”
He told the jury he had become friends with Sheppard in sixth grade. In the summer, they would play basketball together in Ohlone Park. Joubert said Sheppard had been the friend who would convince him to stay when he wanted to cut school — which was often.
“He helped you?” prosecutor Wilson asked Joubert. “In all sorts of different ways,” Joubert replied.
The first 911 call about the shooting came in to the Berkeley Police Department at 8:32 p.m. on Oct. 6, 2015. The neighbor who made that call said she saw a man she believed, with 90% certainty, to be Durant. He was standing next to a body, which he later “stepped over … like he was a sack of potatoes,” Wilson told the jury.
Sheppard was still alive when first responders got to the scene, but he could no longer speak and police were unable to take a dying declaration. There was a lot of blood. Around his body, they found a pair of dice, and a couple dollar bills. Crime scene photos show his arms flailed up, a bullet hole to his left eye. During the autopsy, the coroner found that bullet lodged in Sheppard’s mouth, Wilson told the jury, along with six other bullets that remained in his body.
The night of the shooting, police found the murder weapon in a yard between the crime scene and Durant’s family home on Julia Street. It was hidden, five doors down from Durant’s home, under a chair in the yard of a neighbor Durant knew and had spent time with at least once, according to testimony. Durant said on the stand he wasn’t the one who left the gun there.
After witnesses identified Durant to police as the shooter on the night of the murder, police staked out his home and watched it, then took Durant into custody when he walked outside to smoke a joint in his backyard. During a search, police found cash with what was later determined to be Sheppard’s blood on it in Durant’s pocket. A gunshot residue test came back positive on both Durant’s hands, according to court testimony.
Defense attorney Arroyo told the jury that, though “their life was less ambitious than most,” Durant “did not murder his childhood friend.”
“He did what everybody else did,” Arroyo said. “He ran from the scene.… He is innocent of what he’s accused of.”
Arroyo described Durant’s South Berkeley neighborhood as close-knit, and said the culture is such that people don’t talk to police, don’t hang around at a crime scene, and “certainly don’t kill your friends.” Arroyo said the day of the shooting was an “abnormally normal” day of smoking marijuana, grabbing a bite to eat and playing dice in the usual spot.
“There’s really nothing else for these kids to do,” he told the jury. He said witnesses for the prosecution missed key moments and simply didn’t see the masked robber who actually shot Sheppard.
Arroyo said Durant had gunshot residue on his hands because he “lunged for the gun” during the shooting, and tussled with the robber to keep himself from getting shot.
No one other than Durant, however, offered any testimony about seeing a masked robber or hearing anything that sounded like a robbery the night of the shooting.
Another issue that came up in court was a letter Durant sent from jail, intercepted and then sent on by authorities, in which Durant asked a woman to convince a mutual friend to tell police a robbery had taken place.
“That’s all I need him to do,” he wrote in the letter. “I swear they’re going to drop the case.”
On the stand, Durant said he simply wanted her to ask their friend to be honest about what happened, while the prosecution painted the letter as an attempt to pressure the friend to give police a story that would back up Durant’s own version of events. The language itself was somewhat ambiguous.
The woman said she never followed through. And the friend, who also testified, told the jury there was no robbery.
When he himself testified, Durant said he felt nervous to be on the stand. He told the jury he was born at Alta Bates and grew up in Berkeley. He went to Malcolm X Elementary, and later attended Berkeley High. He lived in South Berkeley his entire life, he said. He wore a dark blue suit over a white dress shirt and yellow tie throughout the trial, and black-rimmed glasses, too. His wore his long dreadlocks pulled back in a band or, other times, braided together.
In a calm, low voice, and without hesitation, he described the day of the dice game, and the robbery he said took place. He said he had just rolled the dice when a man in a mask came up behind him. The man, whose face he never saw, was holding a gun.
“He said, ‘you niggas don’t move, give me everything,'” Durant said. “‘Tear it off, or I’m gonna shoot.'”
Durant said he emptied his pockets on the ground in front of him, but that Sheppard refused to do the same.
“I know who you are, I’m not giving you nothing,” Sheppard said, as Durant recalled it.
Durant said he tried to reason with his friend, saying, “Dude, don’t argue with this man, he has a gun. All we have is little. We can get it back.”
Durant said Sheppard, who had been seated and relaxing against a wall with one shoe off, began to stand up and the robber opened fire. Sheppard collapsed on the ground immediately, Durant said.
Durant said the shooter then began to turn on him, and he “jumped up, sprang forward and grabbed his arm” to keep himself from getting shot. After a tussle, Durant said he was able to run away. After making it around the corner, he said he looked back and was surprised to see no one following him.
What he could see, however, were Christian’s shoes. He said he turned around to check on his friend.
“As I got to him, I noticed he was shot up everywhere,” with blood all over his face. “I called his name and he didn’t say nothing. He didn’t move.”
He said he thought Sheppard was dead because of all the blood.
He then saw what he said was his own cash still on the ground.
“I picked my money up and put it in my pocket, and started to run off,” he told the jury. He ducked through a hole in the fence, looked back one more time, and ran straight home, he told the jury.
“I was thinking, hopefully I don’t get shot,” he said. “Hopefully the person who tried to rob us doesn’t appear out of nowhere and try to shoot me again.”
After he got home, he said, phone calls were rolling in, as a number of people checked on Durant to see if he was all right. He assured them, briefly, he was fine. Perhaps 45 minutes later, he stepped outside to “spark the rest of a little blunt to calm my nerves,” and that’s when he was arrested.
Durant admitted he lied in response to a number of questions during his police interview because — according to his code — you’re not supposed to talk to police, no matter what the reason, and because he had “nothing to do” with the homicide.
He also said he wasn’t surprised that no one had backed up the robbery story, because no one in his circle is comfortable cooperating with police.
And he said his arrest, on suspicion of homicide, came as a total shock.
“I really didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I knew what happened. I didn’t know they was coming for me.”
As he concluded his first set of questions for his client, Arroyo said he was “just going to ask … the $64,000 question”: Did you kill him?
“No, I did not,” Durant said. “I’m very shocked and nervous and scared at the same time. I’m here fighting for my life. I did not kill my friend Christian.”
He continued, later in the proceeding: “I’m surprised people think I did this to my own friend that I’ve known basically for half my life.”
In his cross-examination, Wilson said it made no sense that the robber appeared to have taken nothing from the scene, and the only person who had done so seemed to be Durant. Wilson noted that Durant’s description of a struggle over the gun — in which he had gestured in court that the weapon had been pointed up into the air — did not align with the evidence and casings at the scene, or the injuries in Sheppard’s body.
Wilson asked Durant if he had gone home and told his grandmother about the alleged robbery, or tried to reach out to any member of Sheppard’s family to let them know what happened. Durant said he had not.
“Isn’t that basic human dignity?” Wilson asked.
“I had no way to get in contact,” Durant replied, of the family he had known for half his life.
Wilson also asked Durant whether he tried to call 911 for help — he had not — and about the bloodstained money police found in his pocket.
“Instead of checking on him, you picked up the money. He’s laying there. The money is in his blood,” Wilson said, stopping.
“It was my money,” Durant told him.