Fresno trial begins for 3 in attempt to kill ex-college ballplayer

Donte Hawkins, 22, of Fresno, is on trial for the attempted murder of Brandon Morris. The shooting happened March 27, 2015.
Donte Hawkins, 22, of Fresno, is on trial for the attempted murder of Brandon Morris. The shooting happened March 27, 2015. Fresno Police Department

A Fresno man who was a suspect in the killing of 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez, but was never charged with that crime, is now on trial in Fresno Superior Court, accused of trying to kill a college basketball player.

Fresno police say Donte Hawkins, 22, was on the run for more than a month after Janessa was killed in January 2015. After he surrendered to police in February, he was released because of a lack of evidence.

But a month later, police contend that Hawkins, 22, Isaiah Runderson, 21, and 16-year-old Jalonie Jones tried to kill Brandon Rasheed Morris, a former University of Georgia basketball player, in a neighborhood near Ashlan and Polk avenues, west of Highway 99.

A criminal complaint charges them with the attempted murder and robbery of Morris, and assaulting Morris and his two friends, Briawna Brown and Cortez Conners, with a firearm.

The complaint also accuses Hawkins, Runderson and Jones of committing the crime for the benefit of a criminal street gang in order to promote criminal activity by gang members.

Jones is being tried as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime.

If convicted, the defendants face life in prison.

In opening statements at their trial Tuesday, neither prosecutor Scott Hoedt nor the defense lawyers mentioned the killing of Janessa, who was killed by a stray bullet fired during a gunfight on Marks Avenue north of Clinton Avenue during the evening of Jan. 18, 2015.

Brian Cooks, 23, is in the Fresno County Jail, accused of killing Janessa. Cooks contends he fired his gun after Hawkins shot at him first from a moving car.

In presenting his case, Hoedt told the jury that the attempted murder and robbery of Morris are a case of misplaced trust. “Morris thought he could trust the defendants. Instead he got shot.”

According to Hoedt, Morris was friends with Runderson and Hawkins.

Both sides agree that on March 27, 2015, Morris, Brown and Conners were partying in Los Angeles when they decided to come to Fresno. They came to Fresno to purchase either a “gold grill” – a mouthpiece made of gold – a gun or marijuana for Morris, the defense lawyers said.

Hoedt gave this account to the jury:

Morris, Brown and Conners drove to Ellendale and Gettysburg avenues, where they met Hawkins, Runderson and Jones, who were in a car with two other men.

Initially, Morris and Hawkins got out of their cars and began talking, the prosecutor said. Then Hawkins beckoned Runderson and Jones to accompany him, Hoedt said.

Suddenly, Morris was grabbed from behind. Runderson and Jones then pointed guns at Morris while Hawkins robbed Morris of his cellphone and gold chains, Hoedt said.

When Jones pointed a gun at Morris’ face, Morris pushed it away and got shot in the neck, Hoedt said.

Thinking Morris was dead, Brown and Conners took off as bullets hit their car.

Hoedt told the jury that Morris also was shot in the hip as he lay on the ground. He got up, but was shot in the calf. He collapsed on the front porch of a nearby home.

When police questioned Morris, he told them that Jones had shot him, Hoedt said. But he also identified Hawkins and Runderson as participants in the crime.

Attorney Kendall Simsarian, who is defending Runderson, said Runderson and Morris are longtime friends. Runderson had no reason to shoot Morris, nor did he know Morris was going to get shot, the defense lawyer said.

Hawkins’ attorney, Miles Harris, said that on the night of the shooting, Hawkins, a former Edison High football player who was attending Fresno City College, had asked Runderson to pick him up and give him a ride home. “He didn’t even know Morris was in town,” Harris told the jury. “And no one saw him with a gun that night.”

Harris also said it was Brown’s idea to come to Fresno “to purchase a gun for Morris for protection.”

Jones’ lawyer, Ralph Torres, said police have no clue who shot Morris because his client was home with his family when the shooting happened.

According to Torres, when police initially asked the wounded Morris who shot him, he identified Runderson and “D-Hawk,” which is Hawkins’ nickname. “He never mentioned Jalonie Jones,” he said.

In addition, Brown and Conners initially lied to police and Morris gave detectives several different accounts as to what had happened, Torres said.

According to the Athens Banner-Herald in Georgia, Morris started 45 games at forward over two seasons for Georgia before being dismissed in July 2014 after his arrest for possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute it. He was later convicted of the felony drug charge and given probation. Originally from Lithonia, Ga., Morris transferred to California State-Bakersfield, but is no longer with the program.

The trial before Judge Arlan Harrell is expected to take two weeks.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts