A jury began deliberating Friday in a criminal trial with a bizarre set of facts that includes a high-speed police chase that began at a southeast Fresno funeral home, where mourners had gathered in July to pay respects to a victim of an unsolved murder.
The 8-minute police pursuit, captured by a police video camera, ended at the funeral home with the arrest of four people, including two brothers – Willie and Denzel Ford – who ended up being killed three months later in a gunfight with a gang member.
On trial is Marcus Anthony Becote, 27, who is accused of evading police with a wanton disregard for public safety.
If convicted of the felony charge, Becote faces up to three years in prison.
His attorney, Pauline Seiler, contends Becote wasn’t the driver. She told the jury that one of the Ford brothers was perhaps the driver.
The trial in Superior Court Judge Kimberly Gaab’s courtroom gives a glimpse of the gang culture and the difficulties police face in capturing a suspect. Jurors got to see the police video of the high-speed chase as well as the arrest of Becote and three others in front of an angry crowd of mourners.
Because jurors did not reach a verdict Friday, they will resume deliberations Tuesday.
Becote is the half-brother of the Fords. (Funeral services for Willie and Denzel Ford were held Thursday.)
On July 21, Becote and family members went to the Cherished Memories Memorial Chapel on Tulare Avenue near First Street to pay their respects to their 17-year-old brother Benzo Ford, who was shot to death in southwest Fresno.
On Friday, in closing arguments during Becote’s trial, prosecutor Andrew Janz told jurors that police had the funeral under surveillance because Willie Ford was a wanted fugitive and a suspect in multiple shootings.
Janz said an undercover detective with binoculars saw Becote drive up to the chapel in a burgundy Chevrolet Tahoe. After the service ended, Janz said, the detective saw Becote get behind the wheel of the Tahoe and saw Willie Ford, 19, get in the back seat. Denzel Ford, 18, and Anthony Littlejohn, 19, also got into the Tahoe.
The detective then saw the Tahoe leave.
The chase began when uniformed officers in marked patrol cars tried to pull over the Tahoe to arrest Willie Ford. Janz said Becote took off, leading police on a high-speed chase through southeast Fresno. During the chase, police noted 11 traffic violations, including speeding, running red lights and making unsafe lane changes, Janz told the jury. At one point during the chase, a patrol car was forced to drive on the wrong side of the road because motorists wouldn’t pull over for the lights and sirens.
“The defendant’s conduct that day was both reckless and dangerous,” Janz said. “He endangered the lives of police and that of the public.”
But when police pulled over the Tahoe, Becote wasn’t driving. He was in the back seat with Denzel Ford and Littlejohn. Willie Ford was behind the wheel trying to escape out the front passenger door, Seiler told the jury.
Janz contends that during the police pursuit, Becote jumped into the back of the Tahoe and let Willie Ford drive. The switch happened when the Tahoe slowed and drifted to the right when no one had control of the steering wheel, he told the jury.
In defending Becote, Seiler pointed out that he is about 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 210 pounds and that switching seats in a moving car during a police pursuit would have been nearly impossible. “It may happen in the movies, but not in real life,” she said.
Seiler also said the detective with the binoculars testified he didn’t know Becote by name but said the driver was tall while the passengers were shorter.
To prove someone else was driving, Seiler called Benny Lee Ford to the witness stand. Benny Ford is the father of Becote and Willie, Denzel and Benzo Ford. He testified he has 28 children from multiple women. He testified that Denzel was about 6 feet tall, so he could have been driving that day, Seiler told the jury.
Seiler said police could not see who was driving because the Tahoe has dark, tinted windows. She also said the police officer who testified that he believed Becote jumped into the back seat to let Willie Ford drive never expressed his belief on the videotape during the chase or in his police report.
“Willie Ford was a wanted felon and had a motive to drive away,” Seiler argued.
Neither Janz nor Seiler talked about the killing of Willie and Denzel Ford outside a northwest Fresno apartment on Oct. 1. Police have arrested 19-year-old Domenek Leonard Greenberry on two counts of murder; he is awaiting trial. Because the brothers are dead, Seiler told the jury that police have a motive to stretch the truth and re-create the events of the high-speed chase.
“Police need someone to blame, someone to punish for the police chase,” she told the jury.
But Janz said Becote is guilty because when he was arrested, he lied about his name. Police later learned of his identity through his fingerprints.
“He’s not, as the defense contends, an innocent person on a joyride,” Janz told the jury. “He wanted his brother to escape.”