BART Trial To Be Held Outside Of County

Judge Says Officer Who Shot Oscar Grant III May Not Get Fair Trial Within Alameda County

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Analysis: Mehserle change of venue

Reporter Tomer Ovadia speaks to City News Editor Amy Brooks about the reasons behind and implications of the change in venue for the trial of former BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle.

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The trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle will be held outside Alameda County, according to a controversial decision released Friday.

The ruling-issued by Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson-cites frequent protests and widespread media coverage, among other factors, in its conclusion that Mehserle may not be able to receive a fair trial in Alameda County.

Mehserle fatally shot Oscar Grant III at the Fruitvale BART Station on New Year's Day.

The order references the "staggering" amount of media coverage in the case, including 1,867 articles published in 18 Bay Area newspapers between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31.

Additionally, the order cited frequent protests near the courthouse.

"The protest activity was so loud on one occasion that it interrupted the bail hearing in this case," Jacobson said in the order. "On another occasion, angry protesters literally packed the lobby, wall-to-wall, outside of the District Attorney's Office in this courthouse."

Referring to these reasons and several others, Jacobson concluded jurors may not be able to reach a fair verdict.

"These jurors will be exposed to protesters' angry demand for 'justice for Oscar Grant' each time they go in and out of the courthouse, a constant reminder of the impending civil unrest," Jacobson said in the order. "Under these circumstances, there is a reasonable probability that (the) defendant cannot get a fair trial."

The new venue has yet to be determined, but must be chosen before the trial begins Nov. 2, barring future court orders, according to the ruling.

John Burris, the Grant family's attorney, said he was not surprised by the ruling but was upset by some of the rationale behind it.

"We recognize there has been a substantial amount of media coverage," he said. "But this is a terrible case in that the community exercised its First Amendment rights and all of that ultimately was used against Mr. Grant's family in order to support the notion that there should be a change of venue."

However, Burris said the family will show support for Grant's memory wherever the case is moved.

According to Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law, the new county should be selected in part to achieve a racial composition similar to Alameda County's.

"My guess is we're going to find places like Sacramento and Los Angeles," he said. "You feel a little uneasy when people are looking at racial composition, but if the court doesn't keep that in mind it creates incentives for moving the trial to get to an all-white, Central Valley, 'we love law enforcement' setting."

Echoes of the Rodney King case were present throughout the hearing and may also impact the selection of a new venue, according to Eleanor Swift, a professor at Boalt Hall.

"When the police officers were acquitted in the state prosecution of the Rodney King case, the choice of Simi Valley-a community very unlike the city of Los Angeles-was considered to be a big factor," she said in an e-mail.

A judicial council will narrow down the choice to three to five counties, which will then be discussed by the judge and lawyers in order to determine the final county, according to Burris.

Yvette Felarca, an organizer for BAMN, said the decision has only strengthened the protest community's drive to keep fighting.

"These kind of decisions can demoralize people on one hand and can also strengthen people's resolve to fight for justice," she said.


Amy Brooks is the city news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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