In the final day of hearings over whether the murder trial of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle should be relocated to another county, the defense attorney worked Friday to convince a judge that racial polarization and mass media attention in Alameda County would preclude a fair trial for Mehserle, and that a precedent set in the 1992 Rodney King case should guide the judge’s decision.
Mehserle is charged with murder in the New Year’s Day killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old African-American who was shot on the Fruitvale BART station platform while lying on the ground in handcuffs. Bystanders’ video of the shooting has been circulated to millions, leading to controversy and violent protest in Alameda County. Mehserle’s defense attorney, Michael Rains, has argued that it would be impossible to have an unbiased trial here.
Raines faced questions from Judge Morris Jacobson regarding the precedent of People v Powell (1992), the trial of one of the Los Angeles Police Department officers caught on tape brutally assaulting Rodney King in 1992. Powell’s case was relocated—a rare practice in California—from Los Angeles to the more conservative Simi Valley, where Powell was later acquitted.
Raines argued that the circumstances of Powell trial strongly resemble Mehserle’s, going so far as to say that, “we could change the name, just about, and make it ‘Mehserle.’” In both cases, he said, the police chiefs in charge of the officers’ departments were forced to resign due to pressure from above — the mayor of Los Angeles and the BART board of directors, respectively (Gary Gee, the BART police chief, announced his resignation in August). The Grant and King incidents both led to outside investigations of the respective police agencies, and both saw a saturation of media attention stemming from the release of eyewitness videos.
Jacobson agreed that People v. Powell is the closest thing to a precedent that he has to consider when considering his decision. However, he also said that prosecuting attorney David Stein “made a strong push” in his closing statements on Thursday in drawing differences between the two cases.
Stein had argued that “in terms of size, in terms of scope, there’s no comparison” in the magnitude of the political turmoil surrounding the two trials. He said that comparing them would “be like comparing a neighborhood school to the University of California.”
Stein cited the Powell change of venue decision directly, noting that the decision was made because of political turmoil that lasted up to and throughout the trial. During the Rodney King trial, Stein said, many city council members were facing an election and found themselves having to choose sides in the case, leading to prolonged political controversy. “That’s not the case here,” Stein said, arguing that the Grant case has not had a lasting effect on local politics.
The judge agreed that the Mehserle trial has not created the same extensive political upheaval as the Powell trial. “There’s nothing of that magnitude here,” Jacobson said.
Rains disagreed, arguing that there were no riots following King’s beating and that there was no violence in the months leading up to Powell’s trial–the famous Rodney King riots occurred only after Powell had been acquitted. Rains noted that violent protests had occurred in Oakland already in the weeks after Grant’s shooting and said that then-District Attorney Tom Orloff subsequently charged Mehserle with murder because “those were the demands” of the rioters.
Rains went on to insinuate that Orloff, who recently resigned, did so because of pressures related to the Mehserle trial. Jacobson said he knows Orloff well and huffed at the suggestion. “I think you’re making stuff up right now,” he said.
It wasn’t the only time during the proceedings that Jacobson was critical of Rains and his case for a venue change. Earlier in the day the judge said that he had concerns about the credibility of the statistics about which the defense’s expert witness in this week’s hearings, Dr. Craig New, gave testimony, particularly that there may have been bias in the wording of the survey questions upon which those statistics were based.
Those issues will be among the many that Jacobson will take into consideration when making his decision for or against a change of venue. He is expected to submit a written decision as soon as this week.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.