OAKLAND — Only the trials surrounding the Oklahoma City bombing and the Enron scandal generated more media coverage in the Bay Area than the killing of Oscar Grant III by former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, a defense attorney argued in papers seeking a change of venue.
As a result, Michael Rains argued in the 76-page document filed last week, more than 96 percent of about 400 Alameda County residents surveyed said they knew about the case and its details.
That alone, Rains wrote, should prompt Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson to award a change-of-venue request for the upcoming murder trial against Mehserle. But there's more: a racial divide within the county concerning Mehserle's guilt, proclamations by two judges suggesting Mehserle's explanations for the killing are unbelievable, politicians' urging of swift justice for the killing, and the threat of violence should a jury not find Mehserle guilty of murder, Rains argued.
Given the severity of the accused crime, the extensive media coverage it attracted and the racial factors involved, Rains argued it was impossible for his client to receive a fair trial in Alameda County.
Rains compared the factors surrounding Mehserle's case to those surrounding the case of Rodney King, an African-American man who was beaten by several members of the Los Angeles Police Department. The beating was captured on video and received extensive coverage in the media, and attorneys defending the accused police officers won a change-of-venue motion.
Rains hired a Chico State professor to conduct a poll of likely county jurors and found that more than 96 percent of the almost 400 surveyed knew about the Mehserle case, with almost 46 percent saying the former officer is definitely guilty or probably guilty.
Rains focused on the racial divide the poll found. According to Edward Bronson, the professor who conducted the poll, more than 78 percent of African-Americans polled have decided Mehserle is guilty of murder; 33 percent of white people surveyed believed he was guilty.
Rains argues that the divide is born from the county's history, particularly in Oakland, where an overwhelming majority of officer-involved shootings involve black residents and where a majority of homicide victims are black.
Given those factors, Rains said, it would be impossible for him to be able to find a jury free of bias and harder yet to question potential jurors without being accused of racism.
"Given the results of the poll, Mehserle will be entitled to question every black juror, in private, in substantial depth, about prejudgment. The questioning will be intense, awkward, personal and uncomfortable, yet, if the case were to remain in Alameda County, it would be absolutely necessary," Rains wrote. "The questioning will inevitably receive close press attention and would likely be the subject of editorial outrage. Community leaders and politicians will accuse the defendant of trying to keep black people off the jury."
Even if an impartial African-American could be found to serve on the jury, Rains argued, the pressure on that juror, and on others on the panel, to find Mehserle guilty would be intense.
The District Attorney's Office has yet to respond to Rains' request but is expected to oppose moving the case to another location.
Should Jacobson grant Rains' request, an independent state panel will decide where the case should be located. That decision is based on numerous factors, including distance, resources and courtroom availability.
A hearing on change of venue is scheduled for Oct. 2.