LOS ANGELES — The upcoming trial of a white ex-transit officer charged with killing an unarmed black man in Oakland has already sparked racial tensions in the city, one of the reasons the trial was moved to Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, a jury of seven whites, four Hispanics, one East Indian — and no blacks — was selected to hear the case against former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle, according to KTVU-TV.
Mehserle is accused of murdering Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009 in a shooting that was captured on video by several bystanders. He has pleaded not guilty and his attorneys have said he mistakenly pulled his gun rather than a Taser in an attempt to subdue Grant.
Prosecutors contend he intended to shoot Grant and he used his weapon because officers were losing control of the situation.
The trial could be the most racially polarizing of its kind in California since four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King in 1992.
Jack Bryson, who attended Tuesday’s proceedings and whose sons — Jackie and Nigel — were with Grant when he was killed, left the courtroom in disgust just after the jury was selected.
“This is like a slap in the face,” Bryson told The Associated Press. “This case came all the way to Los Angeles after the judge in Alameda County said they couldn’t get a fair and impartial jury there.
“This is the best you can do, and you did this in two days. We could’ve stayed back in Oakland for this.”
Cephus “Bobby” Johnson, Grant’s uncle, said Tuesday that he was “extremely surprised” that given L.A. County’s black population that not one African American was selected from the jury pool.
Selection began Monday with defense attorney Michael Rains asking some prospective jurists whether they’ve been subjected to racial profiling.
One young black woman said her husband was detained by police in Louisiana when he was a teen for simply being “on the wrong side of the tracks.”
“I think it comes with the territory of being black,” she said.
Asked by Rains if racial profiling still exists for her in Southern California, she replied: “Not as frequently.”
Juror 103, a middle-age, white property manager, recounted that he was with a group of black friends one time when they were stopped by police for “driving while black.” He said he didn’t know how often racial profiling occurred but it may have some effect on how he would view the case.
“I just trust that it’s not uncommon,” he said.
Deputy District Attorney David Stein polled every potential juror, asking if they could possibly convict a former police officer. He also asked those who have friends or family who work in law enforcement if they could withstand criticism if the jury found Mehserle guilty. Most said they could.
Bay Area defense attorney Michael Cardoza, who attended several pretrial proceedings, said he was surprised that a jury in such a heated case was selected so quickly.
“This could be a wake up call for communities (of color) who don’t heed to a jury summons. I think that’s the message that has to be sent. If you want representation you have to get out and serve,” Cardoza said.