Trial wraps up for two accused of murder and robbery in Starbucks laptop theft
OAKLAND — Nearly two years after 34-year-old Shuo Zeng was struck and killed by a vehicle as he tried desperately to retrieve his stolen laptop from three men in a BMW, the fate of two suspects is in the hands of a Bay Area jury.
Here’s what is not disputed: Zeng, a research engineer, was working at the Starbucks on Mountain Boulevard in Montclair on the morning of his birthday, Dec. 31, 2019, when his laptop was stolen. He chased after the thief, clinging to the BMW the man hopped into and yelling for the perpetrators to stop, then was struck by the car as it sped up Antioch Street.
Three men were identified as playing a role in the crime: Byron Reed, 24, and Kejuan Wiggins, 20, who are on trial facing murder and robbery charges, and 23-year-old Javon Lee, who has pleaded no contest to robbery charges and awaits sentencing. Prosecutors allege that Reed was the getaway driver who personally killed Zeng with the BMW, and they say Wiggins kicked Zeng off the vehicle, knocking him onto the pavement where he was then run over.
Deputy district attorney Charles Bisesto asked for first-degree murder convictions for both men, and said a second degree verdict should be the absolute minimum result.
Speaking for a one-and-a-half court days during closing arguments this week, he told jurors that Instagram messages and texts between the three men showed they went to Montclair that day looking to steal valuable items, and that the theft escalated into a robbery and finally to murder as their actions became more and more reckless.
“I’m not trying to tell you that these two men were trying to kill Mr. Zeng,” Bisesto said. “What I’m trying to suggest to you is that the evidence shows these two men committed robbery … they acted in a way that showed conscious disregard for human life.”
During closing arguments Wednesday, attorneys for Reed and Wiggins offered varying defenses. Wiggins’ lawyer, David Briggs, attacked the credibility of the woman who testified she saw Wiggins kick Zeng. He said she got other basic facts wrong, like where she was standing and the color of the car, which showed her memory of the incident was unreliable.
“She has bad memories, she has bad eyesight, she was 55 feet away from Mr. Zeng,” Briggs said. He added that without the alleged kick, there is no evidence that Wiggins applied “force” to Zeng, which is a legal requirement to prove the robbery charge.
Reed’s attorney, Richard Foxall, disputed that Reed showed “conscious disregard for human life,” which is an essential element to prove the murder charge. He argued that Reed had no idea Zeng was clinging to the BMW, or that Wiggins had even made it to the car with the laptop when he drove away. He pointed to the testimony of a defense witness, an acquaintance of Reed’s, who said she saw Reed and Lee arguing that day, inferring that Reed was obviously upset because he did not intend for anyone to get hurt.
Zeng’s death caused outrage throughout the Bay Area, and shook the Montclair community. In its aftermath, residents covered the window of the Starbucks with sticky notes conveying their love to Zeng’s family and friends and held a vigil with hundreds of mourners.
A LinkedIn profile for Zeng said he had been a research engineer and scientist for Aspera in Emeryville, working on deep-learning and computer-network research and development projects since 2015. Before then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Sichuan University and a doctorate from Kansas State University. In his profile bio for the photo-sharing site 500px, he described himself as “a wanderer who appreciates beautiful and meaningful photography in his spare time.”
Trial wraps up for two accused of murder and robbery in Starbucks laptop theft; suspected driver’s attorney calls it an accident