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Tracey Natalie Biletnikoff, 20, seen in undated drivers license handout photo, daughter of former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Bilentnikoff, was found strangled to death Tuesday, Feb. 16, 1999 on the campus of Canada College in Redwood City, Calif. Tracey Bilentnikoff's boyfriend, Mohammed Haroon Ali, 23, has been arrested for investigation of murder in her death. (AP Photo/Ho, Calif., DMV)

A federal appeals court today reversed the 2001 murder conviction of a Peninsula man serving a life prison term for killing the daughter of former Oakland Raiders Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff.

In a 43-page ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that San Mateo County prosecutors improperly excluded two African-American jurors for racially motivated reasons, tainting the trial of Mohammed Ali. Ali was convicted of first degree murder for the February 1999 slaying of his girlfriend, 20-year-old Tracey Biletnikoff, in the office of a San Mateo drug treatment center.

Ali always admitted killing Biletnikoff at the treatment center, where the couple was attending meetings, confessing to the crime to police after first fleeing to Mexico. But the question for jurors was whether Ali was guilty of premeditated first degree murder, or manslaughter, based on his defense that the killing was provoked by an argument over Ali's relapse into drug use. A manslaughter conviction would entitle Ali to a much shorter sentence.

The 9th Circuit concluded that Chief Assistant District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, who prosecuted the case, struck two African-American jurors from the jury pool, using other explanation as "pretexts for racial discrimination." The U.S. Supreme Court has found that prosecutors cannot exclude jurors based on race, or run the risk of violating a defendant's constitutional rights.


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In a unanimous decision, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that Wagstaffe provided "implausible" reasons for dismissing the jurors, and that there was "overwhelming evidence" he "acted with discriminatory intent." As a result, the court found that Ali should get a new trial.

San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox expressed dismay at the ruling, noting that the lower courts had all rejected the same jury bias argument. "We are terribly disappointed because frankly it's revictimizing the family," Fox said. "I can assure you we will do what we can to make sure Mr. Ali is not released from custody."

The state attorney general's office can ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider the case with an 11-judge panel, or San Mateo County prosecutors can retry Ali.

Albert Kutchins, Ali's attorney, said the decision was a "fairly blunt rebuke" to the California courts that rejected the racial bias argument, and is hopeful Ali will have a chance for a retrial.

"It cries out to me as a manslaughter case," he said.

A San Mateo County judge sentenced Ali to 64 years-to-life in prison. At his sentencing, Ali, now 33, apologized to the Biletnikoff family, saying in court, "It's not a day pass by that I don't think about Tracey."

The family has set up a foundation in Tracey Biletnikoff's name to deal with substance abuse and domestic violence issues. The Fred and Angela Biletnikoff, who head the foundation, could not be reached for comment today.

Contact Howard Mintz at hmintz@mercurynews.com or (408)-286-0236