Chimene Onyeri’s defense attorney put on a black graduation cap and gown and yellow stole. Standing with a laptop in his hand, defense attorney Victor Arana faced a federal jury and told them he was going to transport them to the future during his closing arguments.
Arana began with a future scenario where he read a letter from Onyeri’s fictional nephew, who delivered a speech while graduating from law school at the University of Houston in 2045.
In the letter, the fictional nephew talks about Onyeri’s run-ins with the law and remembers visiting “Uncle Chimene” in federal prison.
“He took pride in being a black man convicted of white collar crime,” Arana said as he read the letter.
The letter echoed sentiments that Onyeri presented himself when he took the stand for three trial days in row, including that he was initially mad at Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek for wanting to revoke his bond. After stalking the judge, the letter says he began seeing her as a mother and a neighbor and says she scored points with him for having an African-American housekeeper.
After both sides finished their closing arguments, the jury began deliberating Wednesday afternoon about 17 charges Onyeri faces, including allegations of attempted capital murder as well as allegations of mail fraud, wire fraud, bribery of a public figure, identity theft, access device fraud, money laundering and conspiracy to commit attempted money laundering.
If jurors do not find Onyeri guilty of the first count listed on his indictment, conspiracy to conduct or participate in an enterprise in a pattern of racketeering activity, then they cannot consider a related attempted capital murder charge.
Prosecutor Gregg Sofer referenced a jail phone call between Onyeri and an associate, which he said shows that Onyeri’s dealings were, in fact, an enterprise.
“Stop whining dog,” Onyeri can be heard saying on the phone call. “You work for me, man. You’re an employee of the Chimno Incorporation, dog.”
Kocurek, who has been stoic throughout the 18 days of trial, shook her head when the defense’s fictional letter mentioned Onyeri felt like he could relate to her son, Will, because he saw him sneak out of the house.
Prosecutors started their closing arguments with a 911 call Will made the night his mother was shot and critically injured. They also showed a photo of the vehicle with Kocurek’s blood in the passenger seat and the glass from the driver’s side window shot out.
During his testimony last week, Onyeri admitted to shooting into the vehicle that Kocurek was in when she was injured on Nov. 6, 2015, but claims that he thought the vehicle was empty.
He also denied involvement in tax fraud and credit card skimming, but did admit to skimming ATM debit cards. Nine witnesses testified against Onyeri that they were involved in the debit card skimming.
Jurors will take into consideration mounts of evidence presented during nearly five weeks of trial, including 60 witnesses who were called to testify, nearly 840 government exhibits, 75 jail phone calls, nearly 125 stipulations, about 30 receipts, 300 images, 10 charts, 33 undercover recordings, 36 videos and Onyeri, who was the defense’s only witness.
Some of the images were taken from a broken Samsung Galaxy 5 cellphone that belonged to Onyeri.
“Take a look at that phone. That phone has most of what you need to understand what happened in this case,” Sofer said. “It had a goldmine in it for law enforcement.”
Sofer called Onyeri’s testimony “illogical,” adding that the defendant did that to try to make it more difficult for jurors to prove the “conspiracy” part of the charges he faces. Throughout his testimony, Onyeri often answered yes or no questions from the prosecution with incomplete sentences and pauses.
Sofer told jurors Onyeri’s testimony about Nov. 6, 2015, and the events leading up to the shooting, “flies in the face of all the evidence in this case as well as your common sense.”
Sofer said Onyeri previously admitted to stalking Kocurek because he was upset that she was going to send him to prison. Onyeri also testified about placing a leaf bag in front of her home and shooting into her vehicle multiple times.
“Quit saying I shot the judge. The judge was shot.”
Onyeri said he didn’t shoot into the home because he didn’t want to put anyone in “harm’s way,” but he was elated after the shooting, thinking he vandalized some of Kocurek’s property.
Defense attorney Arana asked jurors if they can look at the case with a blindfold on and put aside the fact that Onyeri curses, wants to be a rapper, and doesn’t work a 9 to 5 job.
He reminded the jury that they need to decide whether or not Onyeri knew Kocurek was inside the vehicle at the time of the shooting if they get to consider the attempted capital murder charge.
In the letter Arana read from Onyeri’s fictional nephew, he referenced Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” saying that Onyeri only wanted to vandalize her vehicle, not cause her harm.
“Quit saying I shot the judge. The judge was shot,” Onyeri previously told prosecutors on Tuesday when he testified. “I didn’t know she was in the car.”
Arana took a pause from the fictional letter to explain why Onyeri’s dealings with his friends was not an enterprise. Arana compared it to a kid asking another friend to help them mow lawns.
Arana circled back to the fictional nephew’s letter at the end of his testimony, saying some people would have thought “Uncle Chimene” was “weird,” and it was hard to get him to focus and answer questions during his time on the stand because he gets sidetracked and uses offensive language.
Although it would have been easy for the jury to convict Onyeri in this future scenario, the story has a happy ending, Arana said as he read the letter that addressed the 2045 graduating class.
“If the trial showed anything, it showed how easily someone could get wrongfully convicted,” Arana said reading the fictional nephew’s letter. “Don’t be afraid of them because they’re different, our system of justice depends on it.”
Sofer’s final comment before the jury began its deliberations was to ask them to render a verdict based on evidence, not the defendant or potential sentences. If jurors only look at the evidence, Sofer said, “you’ll find that the defendant is guilty as charged with each count of the indictment.”
Jury deliberations will continue at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.
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