LOS ANGELES (AP) _ When they report to court to fill out questionnaires in the case of a former transit officer charged with killing an unarmed man in Oakland, prospective jurors will be asked about their attitudes on race.
More than 120 questions will be posed to potential jurors Wednesday in preparation for the start of trial of Johannes Mehserle. The former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer, who is white, is charged with murder in the shooting death of Oscar Grant, who was black, on New Year’s Day 2009.
Video recordings of the slaying was shown across the Internet and led to some violent protests. The trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of extensive media coverage and racial tensions.
The 15-page questionnaire will ask potential jurors if they knew anything about the case, if they’ve ridden public transportation in the San Francisco area, and to share their opinions about crime in Oakland. Most notably, it will ask if they could treat the case fairly without consideration of the race of the people involved.
Mehserle has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Michael Rains, has said his client accidentally pulled out a handgun instead of his Taser stun gun. Prosecutors have argued Mehserle intended to shoot Grant.
Steven Clark, a Bay Area defense attorney and former prosecutor who attended several of Mehserle’s pretrial hearings last year, said Tuesday that based on the numerous questions, both the prosecution and defense realize the magnitude of the case.
“There’s so many societal issues that are colliding in this high profile trial and that’s why the process is so important,” Clark said. “The big challenge will be finding 12 people to be able to judge this case without any preconceived bias or point of view.”
Clark added that educating a juror to come in with a blank slate when so much has already been out there will be challenging.
“How you see those videos will have a lot to do with your life experiences,” Clark said. “The only interaction you have with a cop is asking for directions is a lot different than being on the other side of a nightstick.”
Karen Ginn _ a noted Bay Area jury consultant who worked with Rains on jury selection in the 2005 Oakland police corruption “Riders” retrial _ said two major issues stand out in Mehserle’s case.
“In my mind, it’s just the complete conflux of race and power, and that’s why people were so polarized on one side or another here,” Ginn said. “People definitely have an opinion in this case. One, how racially sensitive or insensitive they are. And, two, how they feel about power.”
Jury selection begins June 8 and opening statements are expected to begin June 10.
Associated Press Writer Terry Collins in San Francisco contributed to this report.
Pictured above are Johannes Mehserle, left, and Oscar Grant, right.