An ancient conflict thousands of miles away was a central theme during a preliminary hearing in a Fresno County Superior courtroom.
The Fresno County District Attorney’s office is accusing Brian Turner of illegally deploying pepper spray during a pro-Palestinian rally May 18, 2021 in north Fresno. He also faces hate crime enhancements.
Nearly two years ago, Turner, 64, allegedly pulled up to the intersection of westbound Nees Avenue at Blackstone Avenue, next to a flag-waving car of Ahmad Qutami, his cousin Faisel Alqatami, and friend Faisal Aboelrish. All three men said they are of Palestinian descent.
In sometimes conflicting testimony, the men said that Turner reacted to the flag waving with a disdainful head shaking, escalating with a profanity-laced shouting match, culminating with pepper spray.
The men immediately pulled over on Blackstone to complain to police.
“All I know is that we went there to protest in peace. And I don’t know why this ended up happening,” Aboelrish, a 20-year old student, said on the stand.
The hearing in Judge Alvin Harrell, III’s Fresno County Superior Court room is to determine whether the case goes to trial. Prosecutor Anthony Muia presented his case Thursday. On Friday, attorney Marc Kapetan will present his defense on behalf of Turner.
Turner faces three counts of illegally using teargas with hate crime enhancements.
New security camera footage of Palestinian/pepper spray incident. A much clearer look at what happened. pic.twitter.com/m1Jl9uBPTZ
— David Taub (@TaubGVWire) April 20, 2023
Ancient Conflict a Focus
Muia started asking each witness about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Kapetan asked similar questions in his cross examination.
Qutami, 21-year old Caltrans engineer, testified he was at the the protest to support Palestine.
“There was a lot of violence happening in our own country of Palestine. And we had a lot of friends and family who are Palestinian, who live in Fresno, California. And a lot of us just wanted to go and show support, try to make a change,” Quatami said as to why he attended the protest.
Qutami also talked about Israel “taking over” Palestine since the 1900s, with Israel growing 90% and Palestine shrinking by the same amount.
Alqutami, a 21-year old student, said Israel is made up of “people that don’t like us” and didn’t think Israel was a country.
During testimony, Qutami said he was the front-seat passenger, and recorded a brief video to Snapchat when the argument became more aggressive.
The video had no audio. Qutami explained that his smart phone was playing music through the car at the time, answering Kapetan’s line of questioning.
Sometimes nervous, Qutami said Turner shook his head when the two cars were waiting next to each other at a red light. Turner allegedly said “we’re going to kill all the Palestinians.”
Alqatami and Aboelrish also testified that Turner made that comment. Both also testified that Turner allegedly said “we do not stand with you.”
Both Qutami and Alqutami said they were upset with Turner’s comments and lack of support for Palestine. Alqutami said he assumed Turner was Israeli.
Qutami testified that both he and Turner shouted profanity at each other, with Turner eventually pepper spraying the three men.
“It burned,” Qutami testified. He had to go to the hospital later that evening.
Alqutami and Aboelrish both testified that Turner made a hand gesture they interpreted to symbolize White Power. Alqatami said he assumed Turner supported Israel, and saying “he probably hates us.” The White Power remark was stricken from the record. Kapetan also requested the remark stricken for the media as well, which Harrell allowed.
Despite Kapetan’s objection, GV Wire used the stricken comments for this story. David Loy, legal director for the First Amendment Coalition, said it would be an “unconstitutional” de facto gag order.
“A judge can’t tell you what to report,” Loy said.
While the motivation may be to avoid prejudicing a future jury, Loy said there are ways around that. Voir dire, the process to pick a jury, could be used to filter out anyone who might have been exposed to coverage of the Turner case.
Brian Turner case prelim hearing. Accused of pepper spraying Palestinian flag wavers. Hate crime implications. Video played in court. Defense says they have their own video. pic.twitter.com/lU1oidku7f
— David Taub (@TaubGVWire) April 20, 2023
Contradiction in Testimony
There was plenty of contradiction of the three men’s testimony. Qutami and Alqutami — the driver — were unsure if backseat passenger Aboelrish got out of the car when it was stopped at the light. They also could not recall if he ran after Turner’s car once the light turned green. There was also confusion whether a unknown person jumped in the car while the argument heated up.
Aboelrish testified that he did leave the car, but did not go around the door. When prodded by Kapetan, he did admit to waving a Palestinian flag toward Turner’s direction.
“I did wave the flag, but not at his face, but in front of him,” Aboelrish said.
He initially said he would not wave a flag toward someone because it might “upset people.” He also said the he was holding the flag still, and the wind blew it around.
Kapetan then played a security video, showing a clearer picture of what happened.
The video shows Aboelrish waving a flag out the back right window, then peeking his body through the window. Aboelrish then steps out of the car then back in. The video does not provide a clear view of Turner’s actions.
The Snapchat video recorded by Qutami and seen in news stories two years ago, shows Turner spraying something from a cannister.
After Turner’s car left, Aboelrish is seen jumping out of the car again, running toward the intersection.
Other facts that seemed in conflict with the three testimonies included how long they were driving around, if they were honking the horn, where the flags were waving in the car, and what they told police after the incident.
Fresno Police Officer Benito Soto testified he later found canisters of pepper spray and a gun magazine in Turner’s car.[4/21/23: this story has been updated to clarify that Soto testified he found a gun magazine in the car.]