In a small Oregonian courtroom packed with reporters, all eyes were transfixed on Wilkinson College’s own Dr. Peter Simi. The tension in the room built as Simi, an Associate Professor of Sociology, gave his testimony to a case that gripped the entire country three years ago — the Portland MAX Train Attack.
In 2017, Jeremy Christian was arrested for fatally stabbing two men and injuring another after they confronted him for menacing two black Muslim women on a train in Portland. In court, Christian would not identify himself as a white supremacist. It was Simi’s job to make that connection for the jury.
“I wanted to be as clear and honest as possible,” said Simi. “I was testifying about two people who lost their lives and one person who was gravely injured. It is a somber occasion.”
Simi’s research focus is the social psychology of extremist groups and violence — seeking insight into how extremist individuals think and why they think that way. For over 20 years, Simi has scientifically studied the causes of terrorism both in the U.S. and abroad.
Simi has done up-close ethnographic research on white supremacists and anti-government militias, studying their culture and worldview by interacting with them. He has interviewed former white supremacists to document and analyze study their experiences. He also monitors online platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for hate speech and extremist dogma.
“I am fascinated by the things that I don’t understand,” said Simi. “I am drawn to those things that make me curious. It is like a puzzle with an even greater significance.”
Shortly after the murders occurred, Simi received a call from a district attorney in Portland asking if he would be willing to work on the case from an expert perspective. Simi was no stranger to the process, having consulted on nearly a dozen cases before. His job was to use his research to provide insight into Christian’s white supremacist ideology.
“One thing I tried to not do is look at the defendant because I thought that that would be distracting,” Simi recounted from his time on the stand. “He had a few outbursts and had to be carried out of the courtroom a few times. So, I wasn’t sure how he would respond to my testimony.” Simi spent two-and-a-half hours on the stand giving direct testimony and a cross-examination.
On February 21, Christian was found guilty on charges of murder and hate crimes and is awaiting sentencing. Local Oregon newspaper, The Oregonian, stated that Simi’s testimony was “key to supporting the prosecution’s contention” that the defendant perpetrated a hate crime by targeting the two young girls.
Simi plans to continue his research on extremism. He is exploring the neurophysiology of hate and extremism by studying the brain function of those exposed to extremist upbringing. His goal is to understand how their past ideologies influence their present biases, even if they no longer belong to hate groups. Simi has worked with Chapman’s Earl Babbie Center, which houses the Division on the Study of Violence and Radicalization. He also teaches field research and thesis classes every academic year that allow students to pursue their own research projects. “Any way a student could learn about hate, oppression, or extremism can help us become more knowledgeable and makes a stronger community,” added Simi.
You can watch the full testimony below.