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June 13-19, 2007

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Renato Hughes

Promise averted?: Renato Hughes, being held in the Lake County Correctional Facility, in happier days.

Justice Averted?

A Lake County white man who killed two black youths during a botched drug deal admits to the shootings. So why is another black man in jail for the deaths and the white man walking free?

By Cynthia Nelson

Born in the mid-'80s, Renato Hughes, Christian Foster and Rashad Williams came into this world in the days of Jheri curl and feathered hair. By the time they were old enough to register style, hair had morphed into high-top fades and asymmetrical bobs. But the boys, growing up as neighbors and family friends, weren't fashion-obsessed. They opted to play sports, learn tae kwon do and go to summer science camp.

The three friends flourished in San Francisco's Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. All came from stable, working African-American families, and as teens they attended college preparatory schools. The boys enjoyed success in athletics and were active in church and community. No one would have predicted that as young adults Christian and Rashad would not survive an ordinary vacation to a small lakeside town. And nobody could have foreseen that Renato would be held without bail for their deaths, despite another man's admission to having shot them.

Clearlake is the larger of the two cities in Lake County, but with the 2000 census putting its population at 13,000, it can hardly be called a metropolis. Its black population percentage is more than double the rest of the county at 5.2 percent, or just under 700 people--still not exactly diverse. The post–WW II economic explosion saw a small trend in black families from the Bay Area vacationing and buying homes in the area, as secure jobs in shipbuilding and other manufacturing became more accessible to black communities.

Part of Lake County's appeal is its affordability, especially when compared to neighboring Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties. While farther from the coastline and from the Bay Area cities than its adjacent counterparts, the county's residents do not have to sacrifice stunning scenery or waterfront recreation. Lovely green hillsides rise dramatically above the blue expanse. Late in the morning on a recent weekday, a black man of retirement age stood in the reedy edge of the water, casting his line toward the depths at the center. A middle-aged white woman smoothly pedaled her cruiser bicycle through town. Families boat over to the county seat of Lakeport to shop and run other errands. The spacious public docks are a far cry from the crowded parking garages typical to a big city.

It's little wonder that Rashad Williams' grandparents decided to retire here. And when he was having a difficult time in the Bay Area, it's no surprise that, struggling with the challenges of early adulthood, he would seek out their quiet refuge for a few months. As he found solace in his new surroundings, he never envisioned the trauma that would be visited on him, his family and his friends.

Golden Boys

Rashad entered the media spotlight in 1999 at age 15 when he raised tens of thousands of dollars for Columbine High School survivor Lance Kirklin. Kirklin had been shot in the face, chest and legs, rescued from the school's walkway by firefighters, and brought to the Denver Health Center "almost dead," according to a Center spokesperson.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Rashad had been running in track clubs since he was seven years old and was preparing to run in the Bay to Breakers when the Columbine shootings occurred. Since his legs were in great working order, he figured, why not use them to help someone whose legs were on the mend? Kirklin needed several surgeries that weren't covered by his family's health insurance. Rashad reportedly raised some $40,000, which earned him appearances on Oprah, CNN and Good Morning America.

Although he had been a shy adolescent, Rashad became accustomed to flying around the country and speaking to all kinds of groups. San Francisco mayor Willie Brown declared May 24 to be Rashad Williams Day. When Rashad flew to Colorado to present the check to the Kirklin family, Denver mayor Wellington Webb made a similar proclamation on June 22, and Kirklin exhorted, "Everybody in Colorado, have a good Rashad Williams Day."

All that traveling and speaking took its toll on Rashad's grades. With just a month left before graduation, his private Catholic school, Archbishop Riordan High, informed him that he wouldn't be able to graduate on time. Three years later, under financial pressure and probable clinical depression, Rashad attempted two unarmed bank robberies for which he was liable to do three years of hard time. Awaiting sentencing, he fled to the respite of his grandparent's home in Clearlake.

Christian Foster, 22, hadn't received the media attention that his friend had, but he, too, was headed for success. He played college basketball and won martial arts championships in tae kwon do. At the time of his death, he was a few months from graduating from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, where he was reportedly very popular. Christian aspired to become a guidance counselor for underprivileged and underrepresented adolescents, and he was about to become engaged to his long-term girlfriend.

Like Rashad, Chris was known for having a sweet, generous disposition. His mother, Sherrill Foster, describes her son by saying, "He lived his life in a way that reflected those values: helping his friends in need, volunteering to feed the homeless through our church and tutoring and mentoring junior high school students."

Renato Hughes kept pace with his talented friends. According to Christian's memorial website, Renato attended San Jose State University, receiving several scholarships. He was very active in his church as a mentor, usher and part of the choir. He shared Rashad's passion for competing in track and field events, and like Christian, he excelled in tae kwon do, winning gold medals in the Junior Olympics.

As a teen, Renato also attended Riordan, where he served as vice president of his class and was even featured on the cover of the school's brochures and pamphlets. He played cello with the Golden Gate Harmony Orchestra, played football on his school team and officiated as the master of ceremonies for the school graduation ceremony during his sophomore year. The following year, after his family experienced some hardships, he transferred to the public Mission High School.

Now 22, Renato spends his days in the Lake County Correctional Facility, charged under the banner of an unusual legal doctrine that blames the one who "provokes" another person to kill to be charged himself with murder. Developed to deal with gang problems between the Bloods and the Crips, "the provocative act murder doctrine" is being tested out on a young man whose future once looked to be anything but bleak. Renato and his family refused to speak with the Bohemian for this article.

The Last Night

Rashad had been staying with his grandparents for about eight months when Christian and Renato drove up from the Bay Area to visit him in the exurb of Clearlake Park on the night of Dec. 6, 2005. Not long after they arrived, in the early hours of the next morning, the three friends decided to relax in a fashion typical of countless Northern Californians--that is, with a bag of weed.

They headed a few blocks away, to the home of Shannon Edmonds, now 33. Edmonds, an alleged drug dealer, holds a medical marijuana card and had three pounds of pot at his home that evening. At home with him that night were his wife, her teenage son and another teen boy.

The prosecution's version of what happened next has been widely publicized and is hugely disputed. What is known is that the scene was chaos. Lake County district attorney Jon Hopkins alleges that instead of transacting an ordinary small-time drug deal with Edmonds, the three young men shattered a glass door at the back of his home, demanded marijuana and entered his bedroom.

The district attorney's office further alleges that they attempted to disguise their identities with bandanas and that one of the youths pointed a shotgun at Edmonds as he lay in his bed. Edmonds then reportedly wrestled for the shotgun while someone began to punch his wife, at which point Edmonds' wife's teenage son and another boy entered the room. One of them had a metal baseball bat that, in the melee, was used on Edmonds' wife's son, resulting in permanent brain damage. Edmonds is then said to have procured a 9mm pistol from the gun safe in his closet, and to have begun firing it as he chased the three young black men from the house.

What is not disputed is that Christian Foster and Rashad Williams died that night from Edmonds' shots. Injured but alive, Renato Hughes was taken into custody later that morning, where he has been held without bail to this day. The man who fired the seven deadly shots walks free.

Provocative Acts

On a recent Friday, Renato's attorney Stuart Hanlon has sped back to his office from an early morning meeting at the San Francisco County courthouse. He is no stranger to high-profile, racially loaded cases; he worked with media darling Johnnie Cochran for 27 years to gain the freedom of political prisoner Geronimo Pratt.

Back in his office, Hanlon speaks as sirens and car alarms pierce the otherwise tranquil setting. "The problem is, our case is so subject to manipulation of the facts," he explains. "We don't believe the evidence is going to show it was a home-invasion robbery."

The distinction between a pot purchase and robbery attempt is the key to the case. Renato is not accused of actually firing a gun or wielding a bat, but of putting his friends in a situation that is "likely to provoke a lethal response." A marijuana purchase is not a provocative act; a robbery is. This unusual legal gambit is ordinarily reserved to prosecute drive-by shooting cases.

A day earlier, district attorney Jon Hopkins sat with a reporter at the end of a long conference table covered in stacks of documents. Hopkins is personable and talkative, and even when his words seem defensive, his voice remains level. He explains why he's not prosecuting Shannon Edmonds. "It's just the kind of case where you're not going to defeat his claim of self-defense. It's not gonna happen. So why would we do that? So that we'd look 'politically correct'? My focus is not to look politically correct to those who are out there, the PC police."

But Edmonds' self-defense claim is far from airtight. In the police report, Edmonds describes chasing the young men into the street. All bullet wounds were to their backs. No one other than Edmonds was armed at the time, and it is disputed whether the young men were armed at all. According to his taped police statement after the shooting, Edmonds said that he thought it was "funny" that as Christian stumbled, running for his life from the fusillade of bullets, his pants fell down. There are numerous other discrepancies, but attorneys for both sides request that specific details be withheld before trial.

This approach to prosecution is so unusual that when CNN covered the story in March 2006, they brought in their legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, to explain. "What it says is, if you, a defendant, commit an act . . . and there's a high probability that violence will result, you are responsible for that violence even if you don't pull the trigger," Toobin said.

How have other provocative-act cases turned out? "They are harder to try. I mean, there have been, in fact, even more attenuated attempts to use this. For example, this has often been used with gangbangers. Let's say a gangbanger starts a big fight in a crowd or shoots a gun at somebody. If someone shoots back, even if that person is acting completely illegally--in the case we're talking about, the man . . . had the gun legally. But other times, people have been convicted. Even if the person who's responding had the gun illegally and was responding illegally, the person who started the fight can still be held liable."

Christian and Rashad's families do not agree that Renato is responsible for the events of that night. They regularly attend the court hearings nearly three hours' drive from San Francisco. Christian's mother, Sherrill Foster, says that "the law can be manipulated and massaged to the point that it is no longer about justice, but convenience. I need to go up there so that the prosecution can look me in the eyes and tell me that shooting someone multiple times in the back and killing them is permissible."

Hopkins, a former L.A. public defender, is sympathetic but denies that he can do anything. "I can't help with it. It would not make it feel any better. It would not lift the load off his mother if I were to [prosecute differently]." Although Hopkins has worked for justice for bereaved families in the past, what he emphasizes now is that nothing can bring back the deceased.

Change of Venue

"Home-invasion robbery." "Botched home invasion." News stations and press across the region relayed the prosecution's story of a robbery attempt. Most coverage left out such terms as "alleged" and "accused."

Stories released at the time of the incident framed Edmonds as a righteous homeowner; the Santa Rosa Press Democrat went so far as to describe his actions as being "worthy of any action movie," claiming that he took a "Dirty Harry approach" to the youths. But the real story could have begun as a Harold and Kumar adventure.

In stacks of documents filed with the court, the defense refutes the robbery accusation at every turn. They conclude that the three friends went to Edmonds' home to purchase marijuana, not steal it. Renato may never even have entered the home.

In an e-mail interview in March, Stuart Hanlon states, "I am very concerned about the publicity that has convicted my client in the press of a robbery in the home before any evidence has been heard in the court. I am also very concerned that much of this biased publicity came from the chief of police and the elected district attorney."

He doubts that a jury from an area saturated with the prosecution's version could be fair and impartial, or could start with a presumption of innocence.

On Feb. 27, the Lake County Superior Court heard arguments for moving the trial out of the county. Hanlon and Hopkins called in two expert witnesses to compare other cases where change of venue had been ordered, and to evaluate the publicity of the case.

The experts testified for several days, both urging to move the trial, but Judge Arthur Mann ruled to keep it in Lake County.

Hanlon appealed the decision, but on April 26, the First District Court of Appeals maintained Mann's ruling. As a last-ditch attempt, Hanlon filed a petition with the California Supreme Court, though hope for a move had mostly fizzled out.

Lake County began pre-trial conferencing. On the afternoon of May 7, one day before Edmonds was scheduled for an immunity hearing, the California Supreme Court notified Lake County to stay the proceedings while they considered the petition. Bar Association presidents in San Francisco and Mendocino counties speaking to the local media agreed that it was highly unusual for that court to get involved before a trial, and the defense team's hopes for a move looked good.

Race Case

Across the bay, the case has been taken up by Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a peace and justice advocacy group increasingly convinced that the charges against Renato are prompted by race.

Van Jones, now the president of the center, has stated, "It's outrageous that anyone is able to chase down and shoot unarmed youth and not be put on trial for that killing. The DA has really gone through the Looking Glass here to avoid charging the white man who admits to killing people and find a black person to charge. The facts are that the two young black men were running away from the house and were shot in the back. That's not self-defense; that's execution. On top of this, there isn't a single shred of evidence that links Renato Hughes to the scene of the crime."

Part of the reason Hanlon's team wanted the move is Lake County's black/white racial disparity. Using little more than the 2 percent black–90 percent white Lake County census statistic, the mainstream media again picked up the district attorney's take on the matter: that a whole county was being accused of racism, and the black defendant/white shooter scenario was too simplistic to be inherently racist.

But Hanlon has never made such a blanket accusation. Since filing documents for a motion to change the venue in February, he maintains that the demographics are more a red flag than a cemented conclusion. "When you add to it a black-on-white crime," he says, "you look at it more, and maybe you can fix it. When you add on to that a violent crime, it's even more of a red flag. But you finally add on to that it's a stereotypical crime, which is the home-invasion robbery, a black man from the city coming to the country and breaking into your house--that's the allegation; we're not agreeing with that, but that's the allegation--then what [an expert witness] says is you can't fix it in a county with that kind of demographic. You have to move it."

District attorney Hopkins refuses to factor racism into the case. "People must get results by claiming, in some places, that race is involved," he says, "and therefore ignore the law."

Edmonds, too, denies that race plays a part of this case. Settled on his front step on a recent sunny morning, he draws on a cigarette and talks about the presence of black folks in Clearlake. "My neighbor, he's from Oakland, we spend hours talking over the fence." Lori Tyler, his wife, leans in the doorway. "My grandfather is black. This is not racist," she says as the cigarette is passed to her.

Michael Ezra is a professor and the chair of the American Multicultural Studies Department at Sonoma State University. On high-profile cases that have had a change of venue, such as the Rodney King trial and the murders of Arthur McDuffie in Florida and Amadou Diallo in New York, he comments, "All of these changes in venue produced acquittals and infuriated local black populations. In Miami and L.A., there were riots. This is the first time I've ever heard of the reverse happening, in which a trial would be moved from a 'white' place into more 'diverse' place to protect the rights of a black defendant."

What if the matter of race was excluded? Hopkins says, "If everybody was the same color in this case, would we be hearing the same criticism? I think not."

Hanlon counters that unconscious stereotyping gives more credibility to some accounts than others. "If they weren't black, we would never think of it. Take two kids who are in college, and one who had been a famous kid for helping people, and you wouldn't say they're capable of that." He is skeptical of Edmonds' credibility. "You forget that Shannon Edmonds is the one who has a history of meth use, meth sales." (On the night of the incident, Edmonds had only marijuana and seizure medication in his system. Nearly everyone involved tested positive for marijuana.)

The district attorney asserts that the stereotypical criminal in Lake County is a young white man on meth, not a young black man. But this doesn't account for stereotypes that people in a largely white area have when they look at a black defendant. Hanlon clarifies: "If you live in a community that maybe wouldn't have any blacks on the jury but there's a sizable minority, then you see the other two-thirds of African-American men who are students, who are garbage collectors, who are lawyers, who are teachers, your children see them at school, you go to parent meetings where there are black people, talk to them. So they're not stereotypes any more; they're people, and that's how you break down racism on a basic level."

On May 23, the state Supreme Court denied the change of venue. On June 14, Lake County Superior Court will hold a hearing to set dates for the trial, likely to be in the fall. Meanwhile, both Hanlon and Hopkins are preparing questionnaires for jury selection.

And as for Renato's, Christian's and Rashad's families? Well, they are readying themselves for more long commutes to this small, remote county. And they are not willing to bear injustice being heaped upon their loss. In an e-mail exchange in April, Sherrill Foster writes, "I am angered by the thought that Shannon Edmonds might go free. He took two lives that he no right to take. Our laws were made so that justice is given to all and should be applied equally. In this case, it is obvious that he committed this heinous crime and has no remorse. I don't want to see him make a mockery of our judicial system or allow him to get away with violating my son's civil rights or have Renato pay for a crime he did not commit."

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