LOS ANGELES — No sooner was the jury seated in the murder trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle than the criticisms of its makeup began.
The panel of 12 Los Angeles residents and six alternates includes no blacks. A majority of the members are women, and at least a handful of its members said they had some sort of relationship with law enforcement through family, friends or by working with police officers on neighborhood committees.
Seven of the 12 jurors are white while, it appears, the other five are Latino. Of the six alternates, one is white, three are Latino and one is Asian-American.
The family of the slain man, Oscar Grant III, 22, of Hayward, said they were angered by the lack of blacks on the jury. Grant, who was black, was fatally shot by Mehserle, who is white, early Jan. 1, 2009 on the Fruitvale BART station platform in Oakland.
Attorneys and professors who have been tracking the case said they are not surprised by the jury's makeup, adding that it does not necessarily mean Mehserle's defense team will have an easier chance of winning acquittal for their 28-year-old client.
"I don't think any of us would say that if you were black that would be an automatic guilty vote," said Michael Cardoza, a Northern California civil and criminal attorney. "When the district attorney (agreed to the jury), he liked the 12 people that he had compared to what was remaining.
"I guarantee you, he is not
In fact, former prosecutor and now criminal defense attorney Darryl Stallworth said he has witnessed numerous cases in Alameda County in which black jurors made decisions against other blacks, including in the "Riders" Oakland police misconduct case.
During that case, in which three Oakland police officers accused of criminal misconduct were defended by the same attorney representing Mehserle, a black juror served as a foreman of a jury that acquitted the officers, Stallworth said.
"I have never had a case, either as a prosecutor or a defense attorney, where I felt that if I had more African-Americans on the jury, the case would have had a different outcome," Stallworth said. "It shouldn't matter at all."
Added Laurie Levenson, a professor at the Los Angeles-based Loyola Law School: "In this day in age, it is not fair, and it is a little bit racist, to say you have to be black to have empathy for blacks."
In order for an African-American to serve on the jury in the Mehserle case, the pool of potential jurors had to have more blacks to begin with, law experts said.
However, having more blacks represented in the jury pool is difficult because they, like many minorities, are more inclined to have financial hardships, and their representation in the community is dwindling, the experts said.
With roughly a dozen black residents in the pool of about 100 residents who were chosen last week to fill out questionnaires, the chances of having one seated on the panel were slim, the experts said.
The reason only about 12 blacks were in the pool, law experts said, was probably because of Los Angeles County's changing demographics.
According to 2008 estimates by the U.S. Census, Los Angeles County's racial makeup had changed with more Hispanics moving to the area. Those estimates show that Los Angeles's population was 28 percent white, 47 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Asian and 9 percent black.
Despite their opinions, the law experts agreed that a lack of blacks on the Mehserle jury poses a problem in perception for Grant's family and the Oakland community.
"From the outside looking in, it's problematic," Levenson said. "Race is an issue in the case, and as we have seen in other high-profile cases when people think the jury is not diverse, they do not give credence to the verdict."
The law experts also said they did not see any immediate problems for the prosecution because the jury is majority female and has at least four jurors with law enforcement connections.
Instead, they said, a juror with knowledge of how police operate could be beneficial to the prosecution in case because they learn about the bad police as much as the good.
"It could be a difference, but at the same time, they hear all the war stories and know how police can really be," Cardoza said.
Added Levenson, "People who have friends with law enforcement can see it both ways."
As a whole, the law experts said, the jury chosen to judge Mehserle's actions appeared to be fair, and they said observers must put their faith in the attorneys arguing the case for choosing a fair jury.
The extent of each juror's thoughts and life experiences probably will never be known, they said, but the two attorneys arguing the case have a much more in-depth view of each juror through the questionnaires filled out last week.
Observers of the trial witnessed only snippets of the information the attorneys gathered through the answers given on the questionnaire, the experts noted.
"The answers are in the filled-out questionnaires," Levenson said. "What we need to know is what they got in their hearts."