In the eyes of Multnomah County prosecutors, Jeremy Christian knew exactly what he was doing the afternoon of May 26, 2017, when he plunged a 4-inch blade into the necks of three fellow MAX passengers who had stood up against his loud, violent rant. Christian’s defense attorneys, meanwhile, believe their client was cornered by people trying to stifle his constitutional right to free speech, and acted impulsively in self-defense.
These were the two distinct arguments made before a 14-person jury Tuesday, the first day of what’s expected to be a month-long trial on Christian’s actions surrounding the 2017 stabbings.
Christian, 37, is facing 12 charges for allegedly killing Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche and attempting to kill Micah Fletcher, the three strangers who intervened after Christian boarded a MAX train on May 26, held a Book of Mormon above his head, and began shouting about killing Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Christian’s charges also include intimidating fellow passengers Walia Mohamed and Destinee Magnum because of their race and perceived religious beliefs. According to witnesses, the two Black teenagers were the primary focus of Christian’s tirade that afternoon. Mohamed was wearing a hijab, a headscarf signifying her Muslim faith, at the time. Christian is also charged with threatening fellow passenger Shawn Forde with a knife after Forde used his body to block Mohamed and Magnum from Christian’s sight.
"You guys ready to smash Portland’s fairytale of a hate crime?”
Christian’s final alleged crime is against Demetria Hester, an African American woman who was allegedly assaulted by Christian on May 25, the day before the fatal MAX encounter, after she confronted him for spouting yet another racist rant on a MAX train.
Christian has pled not guilty to all charges, and has rejected the idea that his actions were at all biased. Before the trial began Tuesday morning, Christian turned to the public and said: “You guys ready to smash Portland’s fairytale of a hate crime?”
The first day in court set the tone for what’s expected to be an emotional and tense trial.
Multnomah County Chief Deputy District Attorney Don Rees began the day’s proceedings delivering the prosecution’s opening statement, in which he led jurors step by step through the incidents leading up to Christian’s arrest. As Rees detailed the grisly stabbings, family members and friends of the victims in the courtroom held each other and sobbed.
“Witnesses thought [Christian] threw a punch until they saw the blood spurting out of Micah Fletcher’s neck,” Rees said. Rees explained that both Best and Namkai-Meche were stabbed in major arteries on their head and necks, wounds that all but guaranteed their deaths. Fletcher, who attended Tuesday’s trial, only survived the stabbing because Christian’s knife missed his carotid artery.
“From start to finish that stabbing attack took 12 seconds,” said Rees. “The eyewitnesses had a hard time processing what was happening. [One witness] thought it was raining, until she realized it was blood.”
After attacking the men, Rees said Christian fled the MAX at the Hollywood Transit Center, crossed I-84, and ran east until police stopped him in the parking lot of Providence Medical Center. Rees read aloud these statements Christian made to police immediately after his arrest: “That’s right, this is a hate crime, I hope they all die. I’m a patriot and I hope everyone I stabbed dies…. It’s only because they began to get violent with me that they signed their own death warrant, and I don’t feel one bit remorseful or sorry about that.”
With that, Rees concluded: "His words and actions, both before and during and after the stabbing attack, show that Jeremy Christian fully intended to hurt and kill his victims."
It appears Christian’s defense attorneys are sticking to Christian's original argument. In the defense’s opening statement, public defender Dean Smith argued that Christian was forced to attack after feeling threatened.
“The only people who were injured were the ones that confronted Mr. Christian,” said Smith. “It was [Fletcher, Best, and Namkai-Meche] who approached Mr. Christian, not the other way around. He reasonably believed self-defense to be necessary.”
Both attorneys relied on TriMet security footage taken from inside the train the day of the attack to inform their opening statements. The video, which lacks sound, clearly shows Fletcher and Namkai-Meche walking toward Christian as Mohamed and Magnum change seats, hoping to put distance between themselves and Christian’s seemingly targeted shouts.
After Christian slaps Namkai-Meche’s phone out of his hand, Christian stands up and squares off against the two men. It’s around that time that Best gets out of his seat and stands behind Namkai-Meche, seeming to offer backup. The confrontation appears to reach a boiling point as the MAX train pulls into Hollywood Transit Center, where Fletcher pushes Christian, and tells him to get off the MAX (according to audio captured on witnesses’ phones). It’s only after being shoved that Christian quietly pulls out a switchblade from his pants pocket.
"His words and actions, both before and during and after the stabbing attack, show that Jeremy Christian fully intended to hurt and kill his victims."
Smith claimed Fletcher’s violence—and the foreboding feeling of a three-on-one fight—incited Christian’s “flight or fight” response.
“When you are in survival mode, the frontal lobe goes offline,” Smith said. “That’s what we use to make basic decisions. Nature has designed us to react to danger signals faster than human thought.”
Smith also previewed an argument around Christian’s mental health, alleging that Christian is on the autism spectrum and that he had an “autistic meltdown” when his free speech was challenged by strangers. Smith said it was Christian’s belief that free speech means he can “say whatever he wants,” even if it includes racial slurs and death threats against certain members of a religion.
Smith accused the victims of not truly being frightened, pointing to video stills that show Best and Namkai-Meche smiling. “This is not the expression of a man who is afraid,” said Smith, displaying a still of Namkai-Meche grinning while talking on the phone with his aunt, before deciding to confront Christian.
Smith also showed the jury a photo taken by Magnum shortly after Christian began yelling, which is overlaid with a row of eye-rolling emojis.
“These aren’t the emojis you would use if you were feeling threatened by someone,” said Smith.
Magnum was able to explain her post Tuesday afternoon, when she was called by the prosecution as a witness.
“I took that photo when [Christian] first started talking,” Magnum, who is now 18, explained. “I was annoyed I’d have to take the whole MAX train with him. But then things escalated.”
Magnum and Mohamed, both students at David Douglas High School in 2017, were riding the MAX to the mall when Christian entered the train and began talking loudly about how Muslims should die and how Nazis did nothing wrong.
“He had a bad look in his eye,” Magnum recalled. “The biggest thing was his eye contact [with us]. I could see something in his eyes. Even looking at him now, he doesn’t look the same.” It was that look that inspired Magnum and Mohamed to move seats after Christian began yelling.
During Magnum’s testimony, the county’s second prosecutor Jeff Howes played a video Magnum filmed shortly after taking the initial photo. It begins with shots of Christian yelling at Namkai-Meche and Fletcher, with Magnum commenting that she’s “just trying to get home.” Seconds later, Magnum lets out a high-pitched scream, and the camera shows a blur of chaos and blue sky as Magnum flees the MAX train at the Hollywood Transit Center. Her fearful screams pierced the quiet courtroom, causing several members of the public in attendance to start crying.
Howes asked why she reacted that way.
“I was scared because I’d never… been in a situation like that. I’ve never been discriminated against myself,” said Magnum. “I’m just trying to live my life and he’s telling us that because of our religion or because of our color we don’t deserve to live.”
She said that when she and Mohamed, her best friend, fled the MAX that afternoon, they were certain Christian was chasing them and, in her words: “Coming to finish the job.”
Mohamed, 20, also testified Tuesday afternoon. She told the jury that she moved to the US from Somalia when she was five years old, and is a practicing Muslim.
She recalled Christian looking at her and Magnum and saying, “Fuck Muslims, go back to Saudi Arabia, kill yourself.”
“I know Muslims are hated,” Mohamed said, “but I had never experienced that.”
“Wait,” Howes said, interrupting Mohamed, “did you say you know Muslims are hated? Is that how you feel sometimes?”
Mohamed nodded, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. Mohamed said she stopped wearing a hijab a few weeks after the incident, out of fear. She’s also suffered from PTSD severe enough to send her to the emergency room on several occasions.
“How has [PTSD] affected you?” asked Howes.
“It’s like reliving it every day,” said Mohamed.
The 14-person jury is expected to relive the moments of May 26, 2017 in the courtroom until at least February 28. Two of the jury members are alternates, meaning only 12 jurors will determine the trial's verdict.
Prosecutors will continue calling witnesses Wednesday morning. It’s expected that Fletcher, Forde, and Hester will be called to testify—but the DA’s office has yet to release a full witness list.
Correction: An original version of this story incorrectly spelled Walia Mohamed's first name. The Mercury regrets the error.