Judge says gay Oakland murder case can move forward

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday June 18, 2024
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An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled June 18 that a man stand trial in the 2023 killing of gay Oakland man Curtis Marsh. Photo: John Ferrannini<br>
An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled June 18 that a man stand trial in the 2023 killing of gay Oakland man Curtis Marsh. Photo: John Ferrannini

Testimony from a homicide detective and DNA expert in the preliminary hearing of a UC Berkeley employee charged in the killing of a gay Black man in Oakland last year was compelling enough for an Alameda County judge to rule the case can move forward to trial.

Superior Court Judge Rhonda Burgess ruled June 18 that the prosecution's evidence was compelling enough after two days of hearing from witnesses for the prosecution in Department 11 of the Rene C. Davidson Alameda County Courthouse near Oakland's Lake Merritt. The defendant, Sweven Waterman, 39, of Oakland, will have the opportunity to enter a plea to the homicide charges again July 3 (he had already pleaded not guilty last year). He is still being held in custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.

Prosecutors accuse Waterman of killing Curtis Marsh, 53, also of Oakland. Marsh, who was also known as drag artist Touri Monroe, was a hair stylist and a Miss Gay Oakland emeritus who used to sing with the Oakland Gay Men's Chorus. Originally from Iowa, friends described him as fun, helpful, and active in his church. (Waterman is on leave from his UC job.)

Waterman's defense attorney David Briggs has told the B.A.R. in past reports that Waterman did not know Marsh, as far as he knew. Neither side is contesting that Marsh was killed at his apartment on Vernon Street in the Adams Point neighborhood just before 8 a.m. March 4, 2023.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jake O'Malley conceded that "we may never know what events transpired in that apartment." Nevertheless, he alleges that "for the purposes of today ... the defendant was in that apartment when Curtis was killed, and his DNA is on the weapon."

Curtis Marsh was killed in his home March 4, 2023. Photo: Courtesy Oakland LGBTQ Community Center  

Three people testified at the preliminary hearing, two on June 17 and one on June 18. All were called by the prosecution.

The first to testify was Ariel Butler, one of the Oakland police officers who responded to Marsh's home the morning of March 4. The Oakland Fire Department was on the scene already, he said. (Neighbors had told KTVU-TV last year that the perpetrator set a fire and left the front door and gate open when running away.)

Butler said he'd spoken to a neighbor who "said there'd been multiple domestic violence incidents" in the past at the address. (Hearsay evidence is allowed at preliminary hearings.)

Homicide Detective Kyle Cardana was the next one to testify. Cardana said when he arrived he saw Marsh's body with stab wounds on the balcony of the apartment, as well as a "bent knife on the ground."

"At first glance ... there may have been some blood on the knife," he recalled.

Cardana said that when he walked into the apartment it was "covered in an inch or two inches of water" due to overhead sprinklers, which were no longer on at the time he entered the apartment, though there was still a small fire "near a bar stool."

Cardana said that, initially, Marsh's male domestic partner, who the B.A.R. is not identifying because he did not testify at the preliminary hearing, was taken into custody. However, the partner showed text messages that proved he was at a friend's house in Emeryville from about 7:15 in the morning until after the time of the killing. He has not been charged.

"We believe the killing occurred between 7:30 and 7:52 hours in the morning," Cardana said. The partner returned after hearing from another friend that Marsh was injured.

Cardana recalled that a neighbor told him that around 7:30 a.m. "she heard screaming, what appeared to be fighting, and saw Mr. Marsh scream, so she ran to get her cellphone to call 911."

Cardana said that as part of their investigation, police obtained a video showing a man arriving on a Lime scooter that morning after 5:17 a.m. The court viewed the video, and another taken after the time believed to be the time of the killing, showing a man leaving the apartment.

Police obtained a subpoena for financial records from Neutron Holdings Inc., which owns the scooters. It showed a scooter ride in Oakland that started at 5:10 a.m. March 4 and was updated after 5:17 as being paid for by Waterman, Cardana said. After being contacted by police, Waterman gave a swab of his saliva to Oakland police.

Cardana said that "we determined there were at least 1-2 people inside the apartment at the time of the attack."

During cross-examination, Briggs asked, "so, is it possible there were three people in the apartment at the time [Marsh] was attacked?"

Answered Cardana, "That is unknown."

"So it is possible," Briggs asked.

"It could be, yes," Cardana answered.

Angela Freitas, a DNA evidence expert, testified June 18. She testified that Oakland police sent her office several samples, including four different swabs from the knife, as well as a swab of DNA from Waterman.

O'Malley asked what she'd discovered. There was DNA from four people on the knife, she said. One sample showed that it was 660 octillion times more likely DNA came from Waterman and three unknown individuals than if it was from four unknown individuals, she said

"For reference, an octillion has 27 zeros," she added.

Other samples had similarly high probabilities of coming from Waterman, Freitas testified.

Briggs honed in on the fact that DNA from at least two other people, who were not Waterman or Marsh, was found on the knife, including one that Freitas determined to be from a male who could not be identified using the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, an FBI-run database of the DNA of convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence, and missing persons. Briggs also had Freitas concede it is possible water damage could damage the reliability of the DNA evidence.

O'Malley had the chance to question Freitas again. She testified there is no way to know when DNA was left on any particular item.

"There are different ways a person's DNA might end up on a knife," she said. "I have received DNA evidence going back decades — to the 1970s. Those are the oldest DNA cases I have personally worked. I have colleagues whose DNA evidence has gone back further."

Briggs conceded Burgess' ruling as a foregone conclusion "given the low standard of preliminary hearings" — though he was sure to add that "there are a lot of unanswered questions in this case."

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