Murder trial to begin today

Rafael Ari Aikens, 24, sits in a Joshua Tree courtroom Tuesday as attorneys go over evidence and witnesses. Jury selection started Wednesday and continues today.

JOSHUA TREE — After two years of preperatory hearings, the trial of Rafael Ari Aikens is scheduled to begin with opening statements this afternoon. Jurors will be asked to determine if Aikens is guilty of murdering two Twentynine Palms women in 2017.

Aikens, 24, was escorted into the Joshua Tree courthouse Monday, Aug. 5, to hear a list of witnesses to be called by the prosecution and the defense, a list of evidence that will be presented to the jury and more.

Judge Rodney Cortez will preside over the case, which includes two charges of murder with enhancements on each count for the use of a gun.

“The penalty, if it gets that far, is life without the possibility of parole,” Cortez said on Monday. “This is not a death penalty case.”

Christy Metcalf, 32, and Renée McKissic, 66, were shot to death March 24, 2017, in the Twentynine Palms home they shared with McKissic’s then 10-year-old daughter. Days later, detectives called Aikens a person of interest in the investigation and arrested him.

Deputies said Aikens had a sexual relationship with McKissic in the year leading up to her death.

In a preliminary hearing in August 2017, sheriff’s detectives said McKissic’s daughter described seeing a man shoot her grandmother.

She identified Aikens in a photo lineup on the second try, a detective said.

Deputy district attorney Justin Crocker announced that McKissic’s daughter, whose name is being withheld for her privacy, will return to California to testify in the trial.

Now 12 years old, she has been living with family out of state since her mother’s death.

Crocker also announced that some of the Marines who served with Aikens before his arrest will submit written testimony, as they are now out of state and will not be able to attend the trial.

Juror selection began Wednesday. Cortez said questions potential jurors will be asked include whether they have guns and if they have read about the case.

“The case got a lot of coverage in the news, especially a lot of local coverage,” said Aikens’ attorney, Donald Calabria.

Calabria said this could affect the potential jurors and should be considered during selection.

Cortez went on to explain to Aikens how he is to act during the trial; when he is allowed to stand and when he is allowed to acknowledge involved parties. As long as he follows the bailiff’s instructions, Cortez said, there will be no problem.

“I’m a very non-combative person, your honor,” Aikens replied to Cortez when asked if they would have a problem during the trial.

Cortez said, if all goes according to plan, juror selection will be completed Thursday morning and opening statements will begin in the afternoon. 

The courthouse will be dark on Friday but the trial will be in session all day on Monday and will continue through the following week.

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