Two days of deliberations was all the time a Sacramento jury needed to return a first-degree murder conviction Thursday against a white man who ran over and killed a black man and all but blamed it on President Barack Obama.
Joseph Paul Leonard Jr. is looking at a sentence of at least 25 years to life in prison for the June 6, 2013, death of Toussaint Harrison in the midst of a moving street fight that began in the parking lot of a McDonald’s on Arden Way.
Prosecutors attached a hate-crime allegation to the case that the jury found to be true. The panel also convicted Leonard of attempted murder for trying to run over Harrison’s partner, Justin Oliphant.
One member of the Superior Court jury said it looked to them as if Leonard started the fight and passed up plenty of opportunities to walk away from it.
“We were surprised how the fight escalated at the McDonald’s and was carried on down the road,” said the juror, a 58-year-old white male who works as a warehouseman and declined to give his name.
“It appeared he had initiated the incident as far as struggle, and of course there was some name-calling back and forth, but they left the scene and disengaged at least three times, and he pursued them,” the juror said. “He became the aggressor.”
The juror said the only point of contention on the racially mixed panel was whether it was a first-degree or second-degree murder.
Deputy District Attorney Amy Holliday and defense lawyer Danny Brace re-argued the case Thursday on the issues of premeditation and willful deliberation that separate those two degrees of homicide.
It took the jury about an hour more of deliberations before it came back with the first-degree decision.
“I am thankful that the jury took the time and the effort to navigate through the evidence and reach these verdicts,” Holliday said in an email. “Justice was served for the victims and their families. The jury sent a message that this type of bias and violence will not be tolerated in Sacramento County.”
Brace called it “a tough case, with tough facts.”
Perhaps the most difficult facts for the defense were Leonard’s remarks from the back seat of a sheriff deputy’s patrol car that were caught on camera.
“Just because we got Obama for a president, these people think they are real special,” Leonard said.
He went on later in the patrol car to refer to African Americans in a racially derogatory fashion. Oliphant, who had scuffled with Leonard in the McDonald’s parking lot along with Harrison, testified that the defendant used the “n” word in fighting with the two of them. Witnesses said he also used it after he ran over Harrison and was sitting on the tailgate of his truck, after a bystander called 911 and snatched the keys to Leonard’s vehicle so he couldn’t drive away.
The fight started shortly after 6 o’clock in the morning, when Leonard and a woman friend went to the McDonald’s for breakfast. When Leonard came out of the restaurant, he became angry when Harrison and Oliphant spoke with the woman. Holliday said Leonard got a chain out of the back of his truck and swung it at the men. They countered by throwing a knife that bruised his stomach and a piece of glass that cut his face.
Video from a surveillance camera showed the men eventually leaving on foot and Leonard following them in his truck. Witnesses said that when Harrison and Oliphant walked through a nearby parking lot, Leonard took aim at Harrison, who was on a bike, burned 23 feet of rubber and smashed him to the ground. Then Leonard got out of his truck and kicked Harrison in the head with his steel-toed boots, witnesses said.
Leonard testified at the trial that he did not use the “n” word in a racially charged fashion, but instead softened it with a pronunciation that contained an “a” at the end instead of “e-r.” He also said that he didn’t mean anything racially offensive in his reference to Obama and “these people.” He testified that he thinks the president “is doing a great job.”
Judge Steve White scheduled Leonard’s sentencing for Jan. 9.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.