An Alameda County Superior Court judge is expected to decide this week whether the case against a former Berkeley Technology Academy student charged with murder and other serious crimes will continue on to trial.
Kamau Berlin, then 18, was arrested Sept. 19, 2014, after a brief police chase about a block from where 72-year-old Nancy McClellan had been left bleeding from life-threatening neck wounds in the back of her green Honda Civic. It was 4:30 p.m. on a Friday. McClellan had been attending a wedding at the nearby Berkeley Zen Center, where she was a member and also a gardener.
Witnesses in the area, both civilians and police officers, testified Tuesday as the preliminary hearing in the case began before Judge Rhonda Burgess. Two neighbors saw a young man matching Berlin’s description in the immediate vicinity of the Honda, at Otis and Russell streets, but neither saw the man’s face or felt they had seen it clearly enough to identify Berlin with certainty. Another witness saw a man matching his description running from the scene but, again, did not see his face.
A Berkeley Police officer who arrived on Otis, just south of Russell, testified Tuesday he made eye contact with Berlin minutes after the initial call came into dispatch. The officer, Christopher Schulz, said Berlin was walking casually down the street. The two made eye contact after Schulz pulled up in his police cruiser. Then Berlin took off running, said Schulz, hopping a 6-foot wrought-iron security gate to access a back yard on Otis before jumping a wooden fence onto a detached garage and disappearing westbound toward Martin Luther King Jr. Way. He was arrested a short time later.
The prosecution is expected to present evidence Wednesday to explain how a conversation between Berlin and his mother led police to the murder weapon, which was recovered near the area where police took him into custody.
About seven supporters of Berlin and a dozen of McClellan’s associates attended Tuesday’s hearing. Prosecutor Briggitte Lowe is representing the Alameda County district attorney’s office. Berlin has two attorneys, deputy public defenders Daniel Duvernay and Kathleen Ryals, because of the special circumstances that are part of the charges against him.
Berlin has been charged with murder with a knife. That charge includes special circumstances alleging that the killing took place during the course of an attempted carjacking, rape and robbery, and an “elderly victim” clause because McClellan was over 70 years old. He faces three additional felony counts for attempted rape, carjacking and robbery. In addition, he has been charged with a fifth felony: elder or dependent abuse resulting in death.
According to testimony from police Tuesday, though McClellan’s body was found in a strange position — kneeling on her backseat with her pants and underwear pulled down and her shirt scrunched up — the autopsy did not find any obvious signs of sexual trauma and the pathologist said he “did not know” if there was any sperm on her body.
Officer Jesse Grant related the autopsy findings: that McClellan’s cause of death had been two stab wounds to the neck. The coroner found her brain had been affected by the injuries, limiting the amount of blood and causing a stroke. McClellan died after three weeks in the hospital. She never regained consciousness.
The first witness on the stand Tuesday morning as the hearing began was a neighborhood resident who was walking her dog when she spotted a woman lying in the street on Russell by a green sedan. The woman’s shoes had fallen off and she looked disheveled.
She was unconscious and “appeared lifeless,” the woman testified, with her body parts “kind of strewn” in an “unnatural fashion.” A trained ER nurse, she ran to McClellan to take her pulse and see what kind of help she needed. She thought perhaps McClellan had been hit by a car that had fled the scene.
As she got closer, someone was trying to start the green sedan by McClellan but the engine wouldn’t turn over. She heard the ignition clicking. Then a young man got out of the car and said the woman on the ground was “fine.”
“At that moment, she kind of came to and started yelling for help,” the woman recalled, breaking down in tears on the stand as she described how the woman then shouted, “Please help me, please help me.”
The man reached back into the car and the passer-by said she followed her ER training to disengage from an interaction if she felt unsafe. She said she wasn’t sure what, if anything, he was going to pull from the car — possibly a weapon — so she backed away, first walking then running as she tugged her dog toward Adeline Street on Russell and dialed 911.
She looked back several times as she put distance between herself and the scene, she said, and saw the man trying to pick up the woman and pull her into the car as she continued to yell for help.
After police took Berlin into custody, they asked her to see if she recognized him from what she had witnessed earlier. She told police “he fit the description I had given” — a young black man, about 18, with a small build wearing jeans. But she said she could not “for certain” say he was the person she had seen earlier.
“When I felt unsafe, I tried not to look at him,” she said Tuesday morning.
After speaking with the 911 dispatcher, the woman said she was so discombobulated she went to buy her husband a cake. It was his birthday.
“I got really scared and dispatch didn’t tell me what to do, so I left,” she said. She later met up with police to look at the man they had arrested and give her statement.
Schulz, the officer who chased the young man on Otis he later identified as Berlin, also testified to what a woman on Russell had heard and seen, which she had described to Schulz. From her home at the Berkeley Zen Center, not far from the parked Honda, she heard a woman screaming for help.
From the second-story front window, she saw a black male in jeans and a white shirt by the vehicle. He was hunched over and leaning into the car toward its rear.
“It appeared like he was struggling with somebody, making punching motions,” Schulz said. The woman went outside to get the vehicle license plate number for the dispatcher she was speaking with, and saw the man walk southbound onto Otis. Schulz said the woman was later able to identify the clothing, hairstyle and build as those of the man she had seen, but never saw his face: “She wasn’t 100% sure he was the subject,” he testified.
During cross-examination, he said he wasn’t sure if the woman wore glasses or contacts, or if anything might have obscured her view of the man at the car. The woman couldn’t see who or what the man might have been hitting, and never saw anyone inside the car other than the man himself as he leaned into the vehicle.
Berkeley Police Officer Christopher Waite was the first to reach McClellan the day she was attacked. He said he had been dispatched to a “suspicious circumstance” — a woman on the ground bleeding — and a man trying to put her into a nearby car. It took police 3 minutes to get to the scene.
When he got to Otis and Russell, he didn’t see anyone around. But when he looked in the car, through the rear window, he saw McClellan. Over the radio, he heard a broadcast about a foot chase on Otis. He looked in that direction and saw a black male in a white shirt streaking across the street with officers chasing him.
He saw McClellan kneeling on the backseat, with her face resting in a “puddle of blood.” Her clothing appeared to have been partially removed, with her pants and underwear pulled down and her shirt pushed up. When Waite went to feel her pulse, using the carotid artery on the right side of her neck, “a spurt of blood” hit his hand.
She did not respond to questions, and was struggling to breathe, said Waite, who is a licensed EMT along with other first aid and tactical medical training related to the treatment of traumatic injuries. He tried to speak to McClellan but she was unresponsive.
Waite saw two puncture wounds in McClellan’s neck. He grabbed her under the arms and lifted her out of the car to the sidewalk area to try to treat her injuries, putting pressure on them and applying a chest seal. When the Berkeley Fire Department arrived, he helped get McClellan into an ambulance, then followed behind in his patrol car to Highland Hospital. Once there, he was able to determine McClellan’s name from her DMV records.
Defense attorney Ryals asked if Waite had been able to photograph McClellan’s position before he got her out of the car. He said he had not. She also asked if he had been wearing a body cam; he said the department does not issue them.
Ryals asked if Waite knew how McClellan’s clothing “had become dislodged,” and he said he did not. She also questioned Waite’s memory, noting he had described lifting McClellan out of the vehicle alone. A fellow officer said, in her report, she had helped him get McClellan out of the Honda.
Waite said he did not recall it but that it would not surprise him: “I was mostly focused on trying to hold her neck together,” he said. “I was more focused on the life-threatening injury I found on her neck.”
Berlin, who is now 20, has been in custody without bail since his arrest Sept. 19, 2014. He is being held without bail at Santa Rita Jail. At the time of his arrest he was a student at Berkeley Technology Academy, though his home address was listed in Richmond.
Testimony is expected to resume Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. in Department 5 at the René C. Davidson Courthouse, 1225 Fallon St., in Oakland. Berkeleyside will provide continuing coverage.
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