What should be the result when a high-profile case causes public protests, leading to nationally televised vandalism, on-camera threats made against the defendant, and inflammatory remarks made by elected officials before the jury is selected?
Anyone whose legal training at least consisted of Perry Mason reruns, the O.J. Simpson trial and Court TV could see that a change of venue was imminent in the case of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle is accused of murder in the Jan. 1 fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III.
Defense attorneys presented Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson with more than 4,000 print articles and radio and television broadcasts related to the shooting. The death threats made against Mehserle, his attorneys and his family contributed to the change of venue, but it was the protesters' actions that weighed heaviest with Jacobson's decision.
"This case may well be a close one and difficult for some or all of the jurors to decide," Jacobson said. "The jurors will likely be making a difficult decision that could go either way. These jurors will be exposed to protesters' angry demands for 'justice for Oscar Grant' each time they go in and out of the courthouse, a constant reminder of the impending civil unrest.
"These jurors also will be concerned about the real possibility (of) more riots and violence depending on the verdict they choose," Jacobson wrote in his opinion
A change of venue was always my concern. I had hoped the case would be tried in Alameda County, but collective action by angry mobs -- driven in large part by a desire for 15 minutes of fame -- made the judge doubt whether Mehserle could receive a fair trial here.
In January, I wrote:
"Each act of violence along with the accompanying rabble-rousing remarks merely strengthens the defense attorney's case for a change of venue. Can anyone say Simi Valley?"
I followed up in February with: "For all of the justifiable frustration, the behavior from a portion of the protesters makes the whole the unwitting allies of the Mehserle defense team, while diminishing the legitimacy of their movement."
I'd say the protesters were the unwitting allies of the Mehserle defense team, because without their actions, the case would probably still be in Alameda.
Since my earlier observations did not support the raucous actions by some of the protesters, I received numerous sophomoric e-mails accusing me of caring more about the rights of Mehserle than those of Grant.
It mattered little, during the same period, that public calls by Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums as well as the family of Grant for calm fell on deaf ears.
The root cause for the change of venue is as old as human history: arrogance and hubris. It is the belief that somehow one's cause is so noble that it cannot be lessened by wrong actions, absolving one of the need to self-reflect about their behavior.
The few seconds of grainy footage that show Grant being fatally shot were all the evidence required for many protesters to become morally certain. But they only served to once again prove that moral certainty is the greatest form of blindness in society.
Protesters who did not share the legitimate calls for justice falsely hid behind the tragedy of Grant to rationalize their acts of mayhem.
Each window broken, car burned or inflammatory statement made aided the cause of the defense team. The outcome could not have been more effective if the protesters had been on retainer.
What happens if the case -- wherever it is tried -- does not return a verdict that so many already believe is fait accompli? Will protesters make Jacobson's concerns that led to a change of venue look like Nostradamus? Should Oakland's business owners and residents leave town for several days?
The change of venue is a black eye for Alameda County and ostensibly for Oakland. Rather ironic given Oakland's only tangible involvement was the incident occurred at the Fruitvale BART station.
The change of venue does offer a teachable moment. It is my hope those involved, particularly those in a leadership role, might chronicle the events along with their contribution that led to the change of venue.
That way, when the next Oscar Grant case happens, and it will happen again, there will at least be a written record of what not to do.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist and blog-talk radio host. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site: byronspeaks.com.
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