LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jury selection in the trial of a white ex-transit officer charged with killing an unarmed black man in Oakland began Monday with a defense attorney asking some prospects whether they’ve been subjected to racial profiling.
Defense attorney Michael Rains was given the first opportunity to question about 45 potential jurors on some of their responses in a lengthy questionnaire they recently filled out.
His client, ex-Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle, has pleaded not guilty to murdering Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009. The shooting was captured on video by several bystanders.
A jury was expected to be chosen by Thursday, when opening statements are slated to begin. One juror was immediately dismissed for unknown reasons.
Rains stressed to prospective jurors that while he wanted to know about their interaction with law enforcement and if they had been unfairly targeted because of their race, that emotions or bias shouldn’t affect the outcome if they are picked to be on the jury.
“My fear is you will disregard the law to hold someone accountable even if the evidence hasn’t proven the charges,” Rains said.
A handful of jurors said they or people they knew had negative experiences with police. One young black woman seemed resigned to racial profiling. She mentioned 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 here in Southern California, she replied, “Not as frequently.”
The circumstances of the case sparked racial tensions in Alameda County and intense medial coverage helped lead to the trial being moved to Los Angeles.
The trial could be the most racially polarizing of it’s kind in California since four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King in 1992.
Another juror, a middle-age black man whose wife works for the Los Angeles Police Department, said he didn’t follow the officers’ trial but questioned their tactics after seeing the infamous King video.
“I didn’t see protect and serve in that,” he said.
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 “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.
Rains has said his client accidentally pulled out a handgun instead of his stun gun. Prosecutors contend Mehserle, 28, intended to shoot Grant, 22, and he used his weapon because officers were losing control of the situation.
Most people questioned by Rains said they didn’t want serve on the jury because they would be away from their jobs too long (the trial is expected to last about a month). However, nearly all said they could be fair and impartial if they were selected.
Deputy District Attorney David Stein was expected to ask potential jurors similar questions later Tuesday.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.