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Oakland residents react to Mehserle jury selection

on June 9, 2010

Many North Oakland residents said they were in disbelief after learning Tuesday afternoon that the jury in the Johannes Mehserle trial won’t include any African Americans.

“It’s a slap to the face of people with color,” said Oakland resident Audra Robinson at the MacArthur BART station Wednesday.

Mehserle, 28, a former BART police officer, is accused of killing Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old black man, in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 2009, at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. Video captured at the scene showed Mehserle shooting Grant, who was lying facedown on the BART platform, once in the back. Mehserle has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, maintaining that he thought he had grabbed his Taser gun, meaning only to shock Grant, who allegedly was resisting arrest after an altercation on the BART train.

Mehserle’s trial, which starts Thursday, was moved to Los Angeles last October after a judge determined the case had received too much local publicity to garner an impartial jury. The civil rights group By Any Means Necessary held protests during the change of venue hearings aimed at keeping the trial in Oakland.

Ironically, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Stein had argued for the change of venue to Los Angeles last November, rather than to San Diego, another venue being considered by the court. Stein had noted that the heightened security Los Angeles County facilities would provide without burdening Alameda County with additional costs. The demographics of Los Angeles County also benefited the prosecution; according to 2008 census data, Los Angeles is 9.4 percent black, compared to San Diego’s 5.5 percent.

At the time, some of Grant’s supporters felt that Los Angeles offered better likelihood for a fair trial. “I really wanted to jump for joy when I heard the judge say Los Angeles County,” Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant’s uncle, told Oakland North in November. “Our concern is justice… and there’s better odds of getting justice in Los Angeles than San Diego.”

Eight women and four men were chosen for the jury Tuesday after questioning from Stein and defense attorney Michael Rains. Seven jurors are white, four Hispanic, and one Indian American. Of the five women and one man chosen as alternate jurors, three are Asian-American, two white, and one Hispanic.

At the beginning of jury selection last week, 200 potential jurors were given a 15-page questionnaire, which included questions like “Do you have an opinion as to whether racial discrimination is a problem in Oakland?” and “Should police officers be treated differently than civilians if they break the law?” Four questions were specifically BART-related.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry had asked for the jury to be seated as quickly as possible; he plans for the trial to start Thursday and last three to four weeks.

Grant’s family and friends expressed sadness and outrage Tuesday at the jury selection. “It feels like we’ve already lost,” family friend Traci Cooper told a KTVU reporter in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

By Any Means Necessary is organizing people to go to Los Angeles Monday to protest the jury decision. “The outcome of the jury selection is completely criminal, as far as I am concerned,” said Yvette Ferlaca, a BAMN national organizer.

Robinson said she is concerned that tensions will flare around this case, similar to the riots that occurred after the Rodney King trial in 1992. “I hope we do not have another LA riot,” she said. “It’s not just going to be in LA, it’s going to be in different counties. This is so sad.”

A large protest held in Oakland the week after Grant’s death turned violent as people smashed windows of businesses and cars. It took police officers seven hours to end the riot.

Oakland resident Andre Jackson said Wednesday said he doesn’t think race played a part of the jury selection process and that he trusts the jury to make sure “justice is served,” but like Robinson, he is worried about the possibility of riots if the jury delivers a not guilty verdict.

“I just pray that they make sure [Mehserle] goes to jail for the rest of his life, or Oakland will get flipped over,” Jackson said. “This is my city. I love it.”

Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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