Will the People Get a Fair Trial?



Judge Morris Jacobson ruled late last week that the murder case of Johannes Mehserle should be moved, saying the ex-BART cop can't get a fair trial in Alameda County. The judge cited extensive media coverage, inflammatory comments by some political leaders, and the possibility of daily protests as the main reasons for his decision. But while the judge's ruling is good news for Mehserle, it may turn out to be unfair for the people of Alameda County and to the family of Oscar Grant. Plus, it could put the City of Oakland in grave danger.

In his ruling, Jacobson acknowledged the highly charged racial aspects of the case. Mehserle's defense team argued repeatedly that black jurors will be more likely to convict a white cop of murdering Grant because he was African American. But the judge seems to have ignored the opposite fact - that white jurors will be less likely to convict a white cop of murdering a black man.

As a result, there is a strong possibility that if the case is moved to a predominantly white county, it could end up with a biased jury - biased for Mehserle and against the People, that is, the prosecution, which represents the citizens of Alameda County. Moreover, if a nearly all-white jury acquits Mehserle, the verdict will be widely viewed as illegitimate. It'll be the Rodney King case all over again. Remember, in that case, the trial of four white LA police officers who were videotaped beating King senseless was moved to conservative Simi Valley in front of a mostly white jury. And then the resulting not guilty verdicts sparked epic rioting throughout Los Angeles.

To avoid the same thing happening in Oakland, state and county officials must do everything they can to move the Mehserle trial to a place as diverse as Alameda County. There is no doubt that race will play a part of the trial's outcome. There is no way of avoiding that. But the best way to lessen its impact and give the final verdict some legitimacy is to find a jury with a mix of diverse backgrounds who will bring their own experiences to the table.

Clearly, if Jacobson is right about the effects of extensive media coverage on the case, then it has to be moved out of the Bay Area, which would rule out Richmond or San Francisco, the only other two local cities with demographics similar to Oakland. Sacramento has been mentioned as a possibility, but it may not be diverse enough. In fact, the only places that come to mind that could produce a fair trial and a legitimate outcome are downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.