Jury Selection in Mehserle Trial Winding Down

Jury Selection in Mehserle Trial Winding Down

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 LOS ANGELES -- The jury in the People of the State of California v. Johannes Mehserle will be whittled down to 18 people this week.

The process of voir dire (jury selection) is scheduled to conclude Wednesday, June 9 by choosing 12 jurors and 6 alternates. Those individuals will hear opening arguments in the historic case the following day, June 10.

The case is the first time in California history that a law enforcement officer will be tried for murder committed in a line-of-duty shooting. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer Johannes Mehserle is accused of murder for killing Oscar Grant III by shooting him in the back at the Fruitvale station in January 2009.

Last week, approximately 200 prospective jurors reported for duty at the Clara Shortridge Fritz Criminal Justice Center of the Los Angeles Superior Court. They were informed by Judge Robert Perry of the need to ensure “a fair trial for both sides … without bias, sympathy, emotion or prejudice.”

About half of the prospective jurors were excused, primarily due to financial hardship. Many of those also cited their own biases, stating they had already formed an opinion about the case.

One woman said her reason for being biased was because she had “a problem with people with guns and a little bit (with) authority.”

The woman’s bias became more pronounced as she told the court that the defendant looked like “a jarhead,” and that she was tired of all these “brown babies” being killed.

Some others said their bias was due to having friends or family members in law enforcement. One young man said he that he worries about “what happens to cops when they go to jail.”

“You wouldn’t vote ‘not guilty’ if you thought he was guilty, would you?” Perry asked. The man answered “no,” but he was also excused from service.

David Stein, representing the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, Michael Rains, the attorney for Mehserle, and Perry will query the remaining potential jurors based on their answers to the 15-page questionnaire that was distributed last week.

Both the prosecution and the defense will have a total of 52 peremptory challenges that may be used to strike prospective jurors from the pool.

The number of African Americans in the jury pool is very small, but there is a very large representation of Latinos.

During pretrial hearings and through jury selection, Perry has stressed his intent to have the case judged on the facts presented in court. “We’re going to go through a lot of trouble to have the jurors judge this case on its merits,” he said. So as not to have what he termed a “sideshow atmosphere” in the trial, Perry ruled on June 1 that John Burris, attorney for the family of Grant, will have a gag order extended to him.

Rains had tried unsuccessfully at a January preliminary hearing to have the gag order, first imposed on the prosecution and the defense by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson last year, extended to Burris and the attorneys for BART in the civil trial.

Although Perry did not extend the order at that time, he reversed himself last week, because he said he had not been aware that Burris was the attorney for about five young men who are scheduled to be called as witnesses in the case.

Burris’ attorney, Carl Douglas of Beverly Hills urged the court “against the rare act” of extending the gag order so that Burris could remain “a zealous advocate for his clients.”

Attorney James Simmons says he is not surprised that the judge ruled Burris should come under the gag order. “It does not appear to be an abuse of the judge’s discretion,” said the Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney. “His clients are involved in this trial; if they were not witnesses, there would be no justification for a gag order.”

Burris will be allowed to be present in the courtroom and observe the trial, but both he and the attorneys for BART in the civil trial are now barred from speaking with media.

Perry also ruled last week that Michael Schott, a forensic video analyst, could testify as an expert witness for the defense.

During a May 7 pre-trial hearing, Perry said he was concerned that Schott’s testimony would include declarative statements and cross the line into advocacy. Deputy D.A. Stein also registered his concern about Schott’s possible testimony. “You can’t see it here, but let me tell you what is happening,” he said.

Schott, whose background includes being a crime scene photographer in the 1970s, took the stand last week and both Rains and Stein questioned him about his proposed testimony.

The videos that have been entered into evidence for the trial include one from a BART surveillance camera at the Fruitvale Station and five from individuals who were present at the scene.

Some of the sample testimony that Schott gave included his interpretation of what BART officers were doing and what Grant and others were doing in the video.

At one point during his sample testimony, Schott testified that a video showed Grant kneeing or attempting to knee former officer Tony Pirone in the midsection, and another video showed Jackie Bryson attempting to strike Mehserle.

Stein countered that Schott’s testimony was only his interpretation, and Perry clarified this was the case.

Still, the testimony of Schott was a cause for alarm for Jack Bryson, Sr., father of Jackie Bryson.

“What is it that Michael Rains and Judge Perry see that no one else sees in this video?” asked Bryson, Sr. “If my son had tried to hit that cop, don’t you think he would have arrested him? He was never charged; he was detained six hours but he was never charged with anything.”

Bryson, Sr. echoed the earlier words of Perry. “This judge is supposed to be there to make sure that Oscar also gets a fair trial.”

The trial is expected to last through the month of June.

This story is part of a collaboration between Oakland Local, New America Media, Spot.us and The Black Hour at Laney College, which are sponsoring independent coverage of the Mehserle trial.