The man who said “Just because we got Obama for a president, these people think they are real special” right after he ran over and killed a black man last year denied Monday that race had anything to do with it.
Joseph Paul Leonard is charged with first-degree murder with a racial hate-crime allegation in the June 6, 2013, death of Touissant Harrison. He testified Monday that he thinks President Barack Obama “is doing a great job.” Leonard denied ever using a racial expletive in his description of the two men he fought before he ran over Harrison. He said instead he used a variation of the term, ending with the letter “a” instead of the letters “e-r,” that he said could be applied to “anybody.”
Witnesses, however, testified at trial that Leonard used the racial slur in the moments after the collision. Camera footage from a sheriff’s patrol vehicle – played in court two weeks ago – also showed that when Leonard was discussing the incident with a deputy, he used the racially explosive pronunciation of the term. The in-car camera also captured Leonard’s remarks about Obama.
Asked by Deputy District Attorney Amy Holliday if he knew the “n” word is “one of the most hateful words in the English language,” Leonard replied, “I’m not aware of that.”
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Leonard, 62, ran over and killed Harrison, 34, following a fight with the victim and another man in the parking lot of a McDonald’s on Arden Way at Howe Avenue. The altercation started after Harrison and his companion, Justin Oliphant, approached and either offered something to eat or tried to bum a cigarette from a young female companion of Leonard’s who stood outside the defendant’s truck and waited for him to return from inside the restaurant.
When Leonard came outside the McDonald’s, he soon engaged in a fight with the two men. The defendant agreed in his Sacramento Superior Court testimony in front of Judge Steve White that he threw the first punch as his exchange of words with Harrison and Oliphant became heated.
In direct questioning from his defense attorney, Dan Brace, Leonard said he first asked the two men to leave the woman alone, before he approached them again and offered them some spare change.
“I thought they were hungry or something,” Leonard testified.
Leonard said Harrison and Oliphant responded by hurling crude, racially charged insults at the white woman who was with the defendant. When he told them to stop talking to her that way, “They said, ‘What are you going to do, man? You don’t know who you’re f------ with. You’re going to die. We’re going to kill you.’”
A video from a McDonald’s surveillance camera played in court Monday showed that Leonard swung at the men with a motion that he capped off with what appeared to be a whiplike snapping motion. The video did not clearly depict it, but the DA said Leonard was going after the two men with a chain. One of them countered by throwing a knife that bruised Leonard’s midsection. The other threw a shard of broken glass at Leonard that cut him on the cheek, the attorneys agreed.
As the fight continued, Leonard testified that Harrison and Oliphant peppered him personally with racially derogatory comments.
The video showed Leonard walking back to his truck and climbing into it while Harrison and Oliphant retreated. Once in the vehicle, Leonard threw the truck in reverse toward the restaurant entrance where the two men stood. The film then showed Leonard stalking Harrison and Oliphant with the chain wrapped around his hand.
He testified he only meant to go into the McDonald’s “to report them.”
While he was walking into the McDonald’s, Leonard said Oliphant threatened to break the windshield on his truck. Leonard responded by grabbing and stomping on Harrison’s bicycle.
He testified that as this exchange unfolded, “I thought I heard one of them say, ‘Pop him with the gun.’”
The woman who went to the McDonald’s with Leonard stayed in the truck while he swung the chain at Harrison and Oliphant and jumped on the front tire of the bike. He testified he heard one of the men say, “Get the girl.”
Harrison and Oliphant instead departed the McDonald’s parking lot, and the video finished with Leonard following them in his truck.
“I wanted to stop them for what they’d done,” he said. “They assaulted me. They threatened to get the girl. They started it.”
He tracked them into the parking lot of the nearby Clutch Mart auto repair shop on Arden Way and cornered Harrison.
“I had no intention of hurting anybody,” Leonard testified.
A prosecution forensic specialist testified Leonard burned 23 feet of rubber before he smashed into Harrison and sent him flying into the windshield of the truck and up into the air. Witnesses said when Harrison landed, Leonard got out of his truck and repeatedly kicked him in the head with his steel-toed work boots.
In court Monday, Leonard testified he was trying to kick away a pistol that he said was on the ground near Harrison. Investigators never recovered a pistol. Leonard said a man who identified himself as a cousin of Harrison’s grabbed it.
Under Holliday’s cross-examination, Leonard confirmed that in his interview with investigators the day of the incident, he never made any mention about Harrison having a gun near him after the crash.
He also admitted he never told the detectives he heard Harrison and Oliphant make any racially derogatory remarks about the woman or him.
The defense rested after Leonard’s testimony.
In her rebuttal case, Holliday called sheriff’s Detective John Kauo, the investigator who interviewed Leonard the day of Harrison’s death. Kauo said Leonard never made any mention in the interview about the two men threatening to damage his truck, never said anything about them threatening to shoot him or that hitting Harrison was an accident.
Kauo testified Leonard told him he wasn’t going to let Harrison and Oliphant get away with what happened in the McDonald’s parking lot.
“Somebody has to pay the piper, and it’s me,” Leonard said in the interview, according to Kauo’s testimony.
Holliday is expected to put on a rebuttal case Tuesday that she hopes will include testimony from another sheriff’s detective that when Leonard allegedly was the victim of an assault by an African American assailant six years ago, he made a number of racially explicit comments and said he wanted to exact some “vigilante justice.” White is expected to rule Tuesday on whether the testimony is admissible.
Closing arguments in the case also could come as soon as Tuesday, after which Leonard’s jury will begin deliberations.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.