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Murder defendant attacks his attorney at San Jose trial opening

Murder defendant attacks his attorney at San Jose trial opening

SAN JOSE — A man on trial for murder violently brought the proceedings to a halt Thursday when he attacked his own attorney in court moments before opening statements were set to be heard, according to authorities and multiple sources.

Ronnell Spencer is shown in a 2022 booking photo taken at Cook County jail in Chicago, where Spencer was a resident. (Photo courtesy of Cook County Sheriff’s Office) 

Ronnell Spencer, charged in a deadly 2022 San Jose shooting, was scheduled to face jurors for the first time in a San Jose courtroom Thursday morning when, without warning, he started punching a Santa Clara County deputy public defender who was representing him, sources familiar with the incident told this news organization.

Court bailiffs — who are county sheriff’s deputies — as well as a prosecutor soon intervened to subdue Spencer and pull the attorney away from the fray, sources said.

The attorney who was attacked was not seriously injured, sources said; this news organization is withholding the attorney’s name because the attorney is the victim of an alleged crime. The county Public Defender’s Office declined to comment on the reported assault.

The immediate impact on the trial is a change in legal representation for Spencer: An identification of counsel hearing was scheduled Friday morning in front of Judge Audra Ibarra, and the county public defender’s office was expected to declare a conflict as a result of the encounter.

That almost certainly means a significant trial delay given the need for a new attorney to examine the case and prepare a defense, given the complexities of a murder case.

It had not been determined Friday whether Spencer would face new prosecution based on the attack. In a statement, the county District Attorney’s Office said, “The incident has been investigated by the (sheriff’s office) and the office will make a charging decision when their reports are submitted for review.”

Spencer was not restrained at the time of the reported assault, which is customary for defendants at trial and is based on the premise that being seen in jail uniforms, or handcuffs or shackles, risks prejudicing a jury. The county Superior Court did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether any security practices for Spencer would change going forward.

Spencer, a Chicago resident, has been in jail custody for over a year in connection with the fatal shooting of 27-year-old Antioch resident Jacqui Amir Biggins in the early morning hours of March 27, 2022 near Fourth and San Carlos streets across from San Jose State University.

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The shooting gained additional notoriety because it happened near the site of a controversial San Jose police shooting that unfolded less than an hour later. In that incident, police rushed to a nearby taqueria after fleeing patrons described a fight and a gun sighting, and soon after, an officer shot and wounded Oakland resident K’aun Green as he emerged from the restaurant.

Green and his attorneys contend he was shot after he and a friend disarmed a man during a brawl that Green did not instigate, and they are suing the city and police department.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.