The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name was never mentioned Wednesday during opening statements of a white man on trial in the killing of a black man last year in Akron.

Neither was race.

Yet on the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, the unresolved issue of civil rights and the evolving issue of guns — who owns them, who shoots them and what happens when someone gets hurt or dies — loomed over a third-floor Summit County Common Pleas courtroom.

As a camera from the Law & Crime Network streamed the trial live, both the prosecution and defense agreed that William Knight, 64, a white construction worker from Streetsboro, shot and killed Keith Johnson, 24, an unarmed, black man from Akron.

It happened in March 2017 when Knight was trying to help his daughter and son-in-law recover a dirt bike stolen the year before.

Johnson didn’t steal the bike, prosecutors said Wednesday. But he knew it was stolen when he bought it and was trying to resell it when Knight’s family spotted it in a Facebook ad, prosecutors said. Knight’s family revealed they had the title to the bike once they saw it in person and confirmed the serial number.

And it was then that Johnson either tried to flee on the dirt bike or circle back in anger toward the Knight family.

Either way, Knight fired two shots from a .357 handgun he carried with him since getting a concealed carry permit two months before.

One shot was in the air, a warning. It was followed quickly by a fatal shot that hit Johnson in the temple.

Police initially charged Knight with involuntary manslaughter, a criminal charge that implies a killer didn’t intend for a victim to die.

That outraged Johnson’s family and friends. In the days after the shooting, about 50 people protested, accusing Akron police of valuing black lives less than those of whites because Knight hadn’t been charged with murder.

Then-Police Chief William Nice called the allegations “bull****” and pointed out the case remained under investigation and more significant charges were possible.

The following month, a Summit County grand jury indicted Knight on two counts of murder and two counts of felonious assault. Nice, meanwhile, abruptly resigned under threat of being fired by the mayor several months later over several issues, including using the N-word in a conversation unrelated to the shooting.

On Wednesday, more than a year after Johnson was killed, more than 20 black friends and family members of Johnson filled three of four benches inside the courtroom of Judge Tammy O’Brien waiting for the trial to begin.

Jurors started the day touring the crime scene on Danmead Avenue, a dead-end street off Eastwood Avenue in Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood. Johnson, who lived in an apartment, kept the dirt bike at his uncle’s Danmead home and that’s where the shooting occurred.

Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Jonathan Baumoel and defense attorney Kerry O’Brien spent the rest of the morning giving opening statements, agreeing about much of what happened before the shooting, but disagreeing on a few legal issues that will determine Knight’s fate.

Baumoel said Knight deliberately parked his pickup in a “tactical position” a couple of doors down from where his son-in-law and daughter were trying to get back the dirt bike. Two months before, Knight received a CCW permit and legally carried a loaded .357 with him, along with additional ammunition.

“That can give you sense of empowerment,” Baumoel told the jury. “But with it also goes a great, a huge responsibility not to abuse that.”

It was dark, about 9 p.m., and Knight stayed in his pickup truck as his son-in-law and daughter — Curtis and Michelle Gill — revealed they owned the dirt bike and wanted it back.

Johnson asked Gill what he’d pay to get it back, the prosecutor said.

A white man who had acted as intermediary for the sale — who coincidentally knew both Johnson and the Knight family— apparently sensed trouble and drove away. Johnson started the dirt bike to leave, too, the prosecutor said, and lost control of the bike in the street.

Knight then stepped from his truck and fired a shot in the air and, seconds later, a second shot that left Johnson dead in the street.

Defense attorney O’Brien, no relation to the Judge O’Brien handing the case, told the jury a similar story with additional details.

Gill, he said, initially went alone and unarmed to get the bike back on another nearby street. When the white man acting as intermediary got a call from Johnson telling him to bring Gill to Danmead Avenue instead, Gill called the Akron police “department about 10 times.”

Gill wanted police to be there. At first, police agreed to send a cruiser, but there were higher priorities in the city that night and an officer never made it, O’Brien said.

Gill also called his wife and Knight because his pickup was full of tools; Gill wanted Knight to come and pick up the stolen dirt bike in a second truck.

“It was not some posse,” O’Brien said. “There was no plan, no conspiracy ... nothing about bringing a gun.”

After Gill confronted Johnson with the title, saying it was his stolen bike, Gill reached through the handlebars, trying to flip a kill switch on the bike and yank out a spark plug to keep Johnson from driving away, according to the defense.

Johnson knocked Gill to the ground with the bike and began driving away, but turned.

“He’s mad now and starts coming back up street ... toward Gill, [Knight’s] daughter and possibly Mr. Knight,” O’Brien said.

Michelle Gill called 911 and Knight’s gunshots are caught on the dispatch audiotape. Knight then took the phone from his daughter, told the dispatcher what happened and dropped the .357 near a fire hydrant as they waited for police to arrive, O’Brien said.

“It’s what’s in Mr. Knight’s mind that is really crucial here,” O’Brien told the jury. “He doesn’t care about the dirt bike. All he cares about is [protecting] his daughter and son-in-law.”

The trial, which is expected to stretch into next week, continues Thursday.

In addition to police and witnesses, O’Brien told jurors they will also hear from Knight, who he said will likely testify last.

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com.