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Extraordinary steps taken to protect jurors as Mehserle trial begins

(6/2) — 1645 PDT — LOS ANGELES — Jury selection in the second-degree murder trial of former BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle, who shot unarmed passenger Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, began today amidst extraordinary steps to protect the privacy of jurors.

After a brief conversation with the attorneys on pre-trial matters, Judge Robert Perry began the jury selection process by reminding the audience to refrain from showing emotions in court or trying to contact jurors, saying he intended the trial to be a “quiet and dignified search for the truth.”

Jurors were then brought into the courtroom in groups of 50 via a back entrance, to prevent anyone from seeing them enter.

Judge Perry spoke to each group for approximately 15 minutes, introducing the case and informing the potential jurors of their responsibilities, with particular emphasis on the prohibition against jurors doing their own research or reading or viewing media accounts of the case.

The evidence presented in court is subject to legal standards to ensure the fairness of the trial, Perry explained, as he warned jurors that violating this rule would result in a mistrial.

He also explained the unusual measures being taken to prevent the identities of jurors from being revealed during the trial.

Attorneys in the case will not be given the jurors’ names, instead referring to them by badge numbers that the jurors will wear during court sessions.

Jurors will be “partially sequestered” during the trial — meaning that they will be kept in seclusion during breaks, but allowed to go home at night.

“We’re going to serve you lunch!” Perry said, noting this was the first time he had seen that in a judicial career spanning more than 600 trials.

Jurors will be told to park in a “secret location” and will be bused to the courthouse from there by sheriff’s deputies to provide additional privacy.

The extraordinary measures to protect jurors’ identities are being taken to prevent anyone from trying to influence jury members, Perry said.

“There was a great deal of publicity about this case” in the Bay Area, Perry told potential jurors, adding that the trial was moved to Los Angeles “out of concern that there had been so much publicity […] that it would be difficult” to select an impartial jury in Alameda County.

More than half of the 200 jurors brought into the courtroom during the day were excused for one reason or another, most due to the financial hardship of serving on a jury for a trial that is expected to last three to four weeks.

The remainder filled out a jury questionnaire including questions on race relations, which will be reviewed by the attorneys in the case.

Mehserle is white, while Grant was black, and the racial overtones of the case mean that the racial makeup of the jury could well have an influence on the outcome.

“12 white guys — that wouldn’t look good,” said Kenneth Johnson, Grant’s uncle, when asked about how the racial makeup of the jury might affect the trial. “12 black guys — that wouldn’t look good either,” he told the Beat, saying that a racially diverse jury would be the best outcome.

More potential jurors will be brought into the court tomorrow, with the process continuing until the judge’s target of about 100 questionnaires filled out is met.

Jury selection then continues June 8, when jurors who filled out questionnaires will be brought back for questioning by the attorneys. A jury is expected to be in place in time for the scheduled start of arguments on June 10.

Contact Steven Luo at