Jury deliberations begin on hate crime murders

May 11, 2009 1:39:10 PM PDT
A San Francisco Superior Court jury today will begin deliberating the fate of a man accused in three alleged hate crime murders of Asians in the city's Portola district and Japantown in 2006.

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During closing arguments in the trial of Joseph Melcher, Assistant District Attorney Eric Fleming asked the jury to convict Melcher of three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder for the two separate shootings in August and October of that year.

Fleming called Melcher, 27, "a cold, calculated, callous and cowardly killer."

On Aug. 27, 21-year-old Robert Stanford was killed and his 16-year-old friend was injured in a shooting that happened as they left Stanford's girlfriend's house. Fleming said the driver of another car blocked the victims' car on San Bruno Avenue and the driver opened fire, hitting Stanford 10 times.

On Oct. 21, a man walked into the Flow bar on Post Street at about 9:15 p.m. and shot a 34-year-old woman, Song Sun Lee of San Bruno, twice in the back of the head, killing her. He also shot a female bartender, who survived, and then walked out to Peace Plaza and shot 22-year-old Kam Yan Li, of San Francisco, fatally wounding her.

All of the victims were of Asian descent.

Witnesses described hearing the Peace Plaza shooter curse and yell out not to mess with "Johnny white boy coke dealer."

Police responded quickly to the Japantown shootings and spotted Melcher walking nearby, according to Fleming. Melcher got into his car and drove off, ignoring police commands to stop, and ran several red lights and stop signs before finally being pulled over and arrested. A gun registered to Melcher and matched to bullet casings from both shootings was found in his car.

Blood from the Flow bar murder victim was found on his sleeve.

Melcher, who took the stand last week, denied he shot anyone and pinned the Japantown shootings on another man who he said looked and dressed like him and had driven to the area with him that night to buy marijuana.

Melcher said he came into the Flow bar after the shootings had taken place, and found both victims on the floor. He claimed he failed to call 911 and fled the area because he panicked.

Melcher was reportedly living in the Los Angeles area at the time but reportedly had family in the Bay Area, and visited them on weekends, when both the Portola and Japantown shootings took place.

Melcher is also facing hate crime allegations attached to the murder and attempted murder charges.

"I can't tell you why he targeted these individuals," Fleming acknowledged to the jury.

He said evidence simply showed that the attacks were unprovoked and took place in visibly Asian neighborhoods, and that all the victims were Asian and were unarmed.

"Unflattering" pictures of Asian people were found on Melcher's computer, Fleming contended, including an animated picture of a girl "cut up like sushi."

"I can't give you an explanation," said Fleming. "It's the only thing I can come up with, just hate."

Defense attorney Mark Iverson maintained that none of the witnesses to either shooting was able to positively identify Melcher for police.

According to Fleming, the descriptions given by witnesses closely matched Melcher's clothing that night, and some of the witnesses shown photos of him said he had the same eyes and skin tone of the killer. One said he looked "very much" like the assailant. Another said "maybe."

Iverson also asserted the evidence for a motive for Melcher was "weak," and there was no evidence found he espoused any racist beliefs.

The jury will begin deliberations in the case this afternoon.

If convicted of all the charges, Melcher faces life in prison without parole.

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