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In BART murder case, police brutality, video evidence on trial

The trial of an Oakland, Calif. BART police officer may reveal judicial attitudes toward video evidence and police brutality, legal analysts say.

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“Juries tend to be sympathetic to police officers acting in the line of duty, and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues in this case,” says Professor Kenneth Williams of Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He says that just last month a jury in Houston acquitted a police officer who shot an unarmed suspect under similar circumstances. "Most legal analysts will be looking to see if that trend continues,” says Mr. Williams.

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Also, Williams is keen to see whether the jury will believe the officer made a mistake, and if so, if it will convict him of murder or a lesser crime – or any at all. “It should be interesting to see if the jury will actually convict the police officer of murder or will they convict him of a lesser crime, such as manslaughter?” he asks.

The ubiquity of cellphones benefits this case, Burke says.

"We saw Rodney King getting beaten, but we don’t know if he said anything to ease or provoke the police,” he says. “The BART incident videos could produce many lessons for both communities and police departments.”

How the judge keeps this trial under control is another issue that many will be watching. The trial has already been moved from Alameda County, near San Francisco, to Los Angeles to escape Bay-area publicity.

“The judge is this case is serious about keeping the courtroom under control – he doesn’t want this case to turn into the new trial of the century,” says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Already, she says, “he has imposed gag orders and banned the use of cell phones and communication devices in the courtroom.”

The case has a lot riding on it, including the reputation and goodwill built up by law enforcement, says Rande Matteson, who teaches criminal justice at Saint Leo University in San Antonio. Often the public sees an event like the killing of Grant and loses trust in the law enforcement community, he says.