A lawyer for activist Sean Thompson told jurors that his public pieing of former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson last September was a stunt meant to make a political point – not a felony assault, as prosecutors have charged.
Thompson’s trial got underway Thursday in Sacramento Superior Court, with witness testimony and opening statements from prosecutors and a defense lawyer.
“This is a trial for the wrong man for the wrong crime,” Thompson attorney Claire White said in her opening remarks before Judge Robert Twiss. “This was not an assault. This was a public stunt, a public disturbance.”
Witnesses saw the incident at a charity event. A magazine photographer caught it on camera. And Thompson, who was quickly arrested, has admitted to being the pie guy.
“The defendant’s guilt is very clear. It’s very straightforward,” said Deputy District Attorney Anthony Ortiz. “There is no question about what happened that day.”
One witness took the stand to describe a frightened Johnson in the moments after the former mayor was struck.
“I saw fear in his face,” said Sacramento restaurateur Bobbin Mulvaney, who helped organize the Sept. 21 benefit event at Sacramento Charter High School, where the mayor was pied. “He looked very fearful. He was caught by surprise. He didn’t know what hit him.”
Johnson responded by pummeling Thompson, who fell to the ground, in what White described as a “barrage of fists – a physical beat down.” Photographs showed the angry mayor, a former professional basketball player, tussling with Thompson, then wiping coconut cream from his face.
It remains uncertain if Johnson will testify. Defense lawyers want him to take the stand but have been unable to locate him to serve him a subpoena.
Ortiz said Thompson once liked the former mayor but grew disenchanted with Johnson as he began to focus on the construction of a new arena, Golden 1 Center, in downtown Sacramento. In court Thursday, Ortiz played an excerpt of a recording in which Thompson talked about his motivation for the September incident.
“I felt pressure to do something that would at least symbolize and embarrass him,” Thompson is heard saying. Thompson lamented that the arena “is going to be something that our children will still be paying for when they’re our age. I’m upset about that.”
Defense lawyer White said Thompson was disillusioned with how much Sacramento had changed since he left for a stint in the Air Force and was upset with how little attention was being paid to the issue of homelessness in the city.
“He came back full of dreams and found his city had changed,” White said.
White said Thompson “thought the issue (of homelessness) was of life-and-death importance” and saw the benefit event – with its guest list of civic, corporate and business leaders and local celebrities – as a fitting stage for his brand of political theater.
“This was the premier event for the who’s who of Sacramento’s elite,” White told jurors. “It was a symbol of the haves and have nots in the city.”
Testimony is expected to continue Monday.