Police investigate a fatal shooting at University Avenue and Chestnut Street, March 20, 2020. Photo: Citizen reporter

A man facing murder charges in the fatal shooting of a driver on Chestnut Street in Berkeley last year has asked a judge to release him on his own recognizance this week while the case makes its slow march toward trial.

UPDATE: Don’t miss our report on the judge’s ruling

Prosecutors say Hosea Askew, then 52, got out of his car and gunned down 29-year-old Diante Craig at close range after they exchanged words on University Avenue over their differing approaches to driving. Craig, who police say was unarmed, was behind the wheel when Askew approached him, according to court papers. His 18-year-old sister looked on from the passenger seat as the stranger shot her brother and then left. Craig was pronounced dead at the scene.

Askew does not dispute that he shot Craig on March 20, 2020, but his story has shifted over time: He told police his gun went off accidentally as he fell backward in the street, according to court testimony earlier this year. At another point, he told police he fired at Craig to stop him from running him over. When police first questioned Askew about his involvement in the killing, he threatened homicide detectives with a lawsuit and denied even being in Berkeley on the day it happened, according to court papers.

In April, after a two-day hearing where both sides presented evidence, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ordered Askew to stand trial in the murder case and also said he “lacked any credibility. Was not credible. Period. Period,” according to court papers. “Makes no sense. None of it makes sense. What he tried to say doesn’t hold water.”

Diante Craig. Courtesy: Nicole Lewis-Bolton

On the day of the shooting, Craig and his little sister had just picked up salads from their favorite lunch spot and were driving home along University Avenue shortly after noon. According to court papers, Craig — who was driving behind Askew — became frustrated when Askew kept hitting the brakes for no apparent reason. Askew said he was braking because Craig was driving too closely behind him.

At one point, Askew told police, he stopped his vehicle “short of the traffic in front of him” so Craig would have to go around him, according to court testimony. Craig pulled up alongside Askew and the men argued. Craig told the older man to pull over. When Askew turned right onto Chestnut Street a short time later, Craig turned too. Minutes later, he would be dead. A single bullet took his life. The prosecution has called it a “kill shot.”

“Unusual” motion for release without bail

Last week, Askew’s attorney Annie Beles asked Judge Morris Jacobson to release Askew on his own recognizance (“OR”) if he agreed to stay home aside from court and other approved outings, such as legal and medical visits.

“I don’t think that he poses a danger,” Beles told the judge, adding that she knew it was “unusual” under the circumstances to ask for an “OR” release. She said her client had killed Craig in self-defense.

Jacobson said he needed to review a 225-page transcript from the April hearing before making a decision, which he scheduled for Wednesday morning, Sept. 8. Last year, police said the homicide “began as a road rage incident” but released few other details.

During the Aug. 30 hearing — which Berkeleyside monitored by live-streaming audio due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions by the court — Beles said neither Askew nor his wife, Mercedes Askew, could afford bail. (Mercedes originally lied to police and was charged as an accessory to the killing but recently saw her case dropped.)

Beles has repeatedly reminded the court that the killing happened just days after California’s shelter-in-place order went into effect last year.

“There was an enormous amount of societal anxiety,” she told Jacobson. “That was a time when the grocery shelves were bare, when people couldn’t find ground beef or toiletry products. And I think that it was an unusual confluence of events.”

What constitutes a danger?

Hosea Askew. Credit: BPD

Deputy District Attorney John Ullom argued that Askew must remain without bail at Santa Rita Jail to “ensure public safety.”

The prosecutor told Jacobson that Askew had been running errands before the shooting already armed with a loaded gun, which was visible in bank surveillance video. The gun was registered to Askew but he did not have a concealed carry permit.

“He has no right to walk around with it,” Ullom said. “This indicates a readiness and a willingness to use that firearm.”

On Chestnut Street, Ullom said, Askew walked up to Craig and “simply executed” him in the driver’s seat as Craig’s sister watched in disbelief.

The prosecutor said it was unlikely that “somebody whose temper is so short, and willingness to be violent so great, is not going to run into minor irritations in the course of his day-to-day interactions.”

“The facts of this case illustrate Mr. Askew is, was and remains a danger to public safety,” Ullom told the judge.

Beles argued that Craig had been driving aggressively on University and that, on Chestnut, he started to drive at Askew — a fact disputed by Craig’s sister, who has said they were stopped and that Askew was alongside her brother, within 1-2 feet of his window, when Askew fired his gun.

“This was not road rage,” Beles told Jacobson. “If there was any road rage, it was on Mr. Craig’s behalf.”

In April, Beles was taken to task by Judge Andrew Steckler, a former defense attorney himself, when she argued that her client “tried to escape” from Craig.

“When you say he tried to escape, not exactly,” Steckler observed. Askew had “parked and got out with his gun.”

“Those are true facts,” Beles conceded.

“That’s not escape,” Steckler replied.

When Beles said she planned to argue it as escape to a jury, Steckler quipped: “Good luck with that.”

Ullom described Beles’ exchange with Steckler during last week’s hearing and urged Judge Jacobson to consider it.

“The degree to which he was dismissive of any and all versions from Mr. Askew is very remarkable,” Ullom said, adding that Steckler “rejected any version of events proffered by the defense and Mr. Askew.”

Judge has “concerns” about defendant’s actions

Mercedes Askew. Credit: BPD

Beles said Jacobson should not dwell on Steckler’s ideas for the basis of his ruling and asked him instead to consider “what conditions will prevent a danger to public safety and flight risk.”

She said her client posed “zero flight risk” and that there were “zero public safety issues because of the unusual confluence of events” of the shelter-in-place order last year. Beles said it would be “sufficient” to order her client to stay home aside from excused excursions and not to drive.

And Askew’s wife, Beles assured the judge, said she is “willing to report” any violation on her husband’s part.

Jacobson told the attorneys he would make his ruling today after reading the April transcript.

But he expressed some hesitancy over Beles’ request based on the materials he had reviewed.

“I have concerns about guns being cleaned, rental cars being swapped, police being told that nobody ever left the house,” he said. “There’s a whole series of those things.”

Stay tuned to Berkeleyside for continuing coverage.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...