Prosecutors are trying to persuade a jury that Allen "Lance" Scarsella is a racist and that text messages sent to friends signaled that he was the kind of person who would fire into a crowd of mostly black protesters in November 2015, wounding five of them.
In one message, Hennepin County prosecutors say, the 23-year-old asked a friend to join him at target practice "for when we have to shoot black guys."
When he discussed buying a new gun — the one he would eventually use on the night in question — he complained that another firearm he owned "was not killing brown people dead enough."
That's according to Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Judith Hawley, who in her opening statements Tuesday in Scarsella's trial in Hennepin County for felony first-degree assault and inciting a riot, said the defendant's racist beliefs led to the shooting.
But Scarsella's defense attorney, Peter Martin, argued that Scarsella is on trial for his actions, not his opinions, and that he fired in self-defense after the protesters attacked his group as they stood alongside a fence.
"Allen Scarsella was scared out of his mind," Martin said. "And he shot because he was afraid he and his friend were going to get killed by the mob."
The trial opened after nearly a week of jury selection that heavily focused on racial views. What began as 40 potential jurors was whittled down to 14 Tuesday afternoon, consisting of 11 men and three women, two of them alternates. At least nine of the men are white, and there are no blacks on the panel. Minneapolis NAACP President Jason Sole called the makeup an example of a larger problem.
"We're consistently seeing blacks being excluded from any decision-making in the court system," he said. "Our voice being excluded from the courtroom is very telling."
Hennepin County judge Daniel Mabley said in an interview Monday that the percentage of potential minority jurors in any case is generally higher compared to that of the county's minority population.
Scarsella, now 24, has been jailed since the shooting. The trial is expected to last through next week. Three others, Nathan Gustavsson, 22, of Hermantown; Daniel Macey, 27, of Pine City, and Joseph Backman, 28, of Eagan, stand charged with second-degree riot and aiding an offender. While prosecutors list dozens of potential witnesses — mostly police officers and forensic analysts, Scarsella's considerably shorter list includes Gustavsson and Backman.
Attorneys for Macey and Backman said their clients will not testify.
Gustavsson's attorney, Robert Jones said he has advised his client not to testify, but added that Gustavsson wants to, because he believes his life was saved that night.
"My client was on the ground. He was like, 'Thank god Scarsella was there.' " Jones said. "If it wasn't for Scarsella defending him, he'd be dead."
Motive in dispute
Hawley argued that Scarsella's racism was why he and at least two others first visited the Minneapolis Fourth Precinct police headquarters on Nov. 19 to film protesters who gathered following the shooting death of Jamar Clark. Clark, 24, had been killed during a scuffle with two Minneapolis police a few days earlier, sparking weeks of outcry.
Videos the men shot and posted online, in which one of the men flashes handguns and uses racial slurs, quickly caught the attention of Black Lives Matter and went viral. The attention emboldened Scarsella, Hawley said.
"The internet is on fire about us," he allegedly told a friend. "I'm famous."
Four days later, Scarsella and three others decided to return to the Fourth Precinct. They were quickly recognized by the protesters. Racial slurs were uttered. In about a minute, eight shots were fired.
One man still has a bullet in his body; another had to have rods and screws permanently put into his leg.
Martin said that Scarsella was punched in the face, as was Gustavsson.
"He yelled go back! Go back!" Martin said. Instead, Martin said six or seven protesters rushed them. Scarsella thought he saw someone with a weapon.
Although Martin acknowledged Scarsella's text messages were "offensive and racially charged," he said some of them were sent a year before the protests, and none of them had anything to do with the actual incident.
"You might not like Mr. Scarsella, you might not like what he said to his friends, you might not like his attitude toward black people," Martin told the jury. "But he is on trial for his conduct — not his opinions, not for what he said to people."