Already mired in years of delays, the trial of two brothers on charges that they murdered three relatives at a home in Oakland on
Thanksgiving Day 2006 has been put on hold again because a judge has allowed one of the brothers to fire his lawyers. At a hearing on Monday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Larry Goodman granted a motion by Asmerom Gebreselassie, 46, who had already switched lawyers several times, to fire assistant public defenders Ray Plumhoff and Marvin Lew. Goodman appointed veteran Oakland defense lawyer William DuBois, who had briefly represented Gebreselassie in the past, to represent him again.
Veteran San Francisco attorney Tony Serra, who represents Asmerom’s brother, 43-year-old Tewodros Gebreselassie, said he fears that the switch will mean that the brothers’ trial, which had been scheduled to start in May, may be pushed back until October or November because DuBois will need time to prepare. DuBois was unavailable for comment Monday and today. The shooting murders occurred at the Keller Plaza apartment complex at 5301 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland about 3 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2006.
Killed were Winta Mehari, the Gebreselassie’s 28-year-old sister-in-law; her brother, Yonas Mehari, 17; and their mother, 50-year-old Regbe Bahrengasi. Asmerom is accused of being the shooter and Tewodros the accomplice. Each is charged with three counts of murder and could face life in prison without parole, but not the death penalty, if convicted. They also face one count of attempted murder for the non-fatal shooting of Yehtram Mehari, the brother or Winta and Yonas. Additionally, each is charged with one count of kidnapping for allegedly taking Winta Mehari’s 2-year-old son from the scene, and two counts of false imprisonment.
Lastly, they are charged with two special-circumstance murder clauses: multiple murder and murder during the course of a kidnapping. At the brothers’ preliminary hearing, which lasted for 28 days spread over six months, Plumhoff said Asmerom acted in self-defense and opened fire only after two male members of the Mehari family met him with an angry outburst and pulled out guns.
Tewodros’ attorney during the preliminary hearing, Robert Beles, said Tewodros had no idea that Asmerom was coming to the apartment and was armed with a gun. But John Jay, the prosecutor at the preliminary hearing, alleged that Asmeron and Tewodros were motivated by revenge and wanted to “massacre” Winta Mehari and her entire family because they believed she was responsible
for the death of 42-year-old Abraham Tewolde, her husband and their older brother, at the couple’s home in Berkeley on March 1, 2006. Abraham Tewolde’s death was investigated by Berkeley police but his cause of death was undetermined. Jay also alleged that the brothers wanted to kidnap Abraham’s 2-year-old son so they could raise him and also collect on a $500,000 life insurance policy that Abraham had taken out before he died, as the boy is a beneficiary. The brothers and the victims in the case are all from Eritrea and the case has split Oakland’s Eritrean community, with supporters of the brothers and of the victims packing the courtroom during most of the hearings in the case and sitting on opposite sides of the courtroom. The specifics of Asmerom Gebreselassie’s so-called “Marsden motion” to fire his lawyers weren’t made public, because it’s a confidential matter and only Asmerom and his lawyers were in court for the hearing. But in a Marsden motion, named for a 1970 appellate court ruling,
defendants allege that either their lawyers are not providing adequate representation or they and their lawyers have become embroiled in such an irreconcilable conflict that ineffective representation is likely to result. Serra said he believes the reason that Asmerom wanted to fire Plumhoff and Lew is that he wasn’t getting along well with them. Plumhoff and Lew couldn’t be reached for comment. In other rulings on Monday, Goodman denied Tewodros’ motion to be prosecuted separately from Asmeron, and Tewodros’ motion to be granted bail. Serra said he wants Tewodros to be prosecuted separately because “only one-fifth of the witnesses in the case are relevant to him” and he thinks it will be “very prejudicial” for him to stand trial with his brother.
Serra said he thinks Tewodros should be granted bail because he’s a University of California at Berkeley graduate who has a good work record and no previous criminal record. Both brothers are being held in custody without bail. Another pending issue in the complicated case is a defense motion to have Asmerom declared incompetent to stand trial. Goodman said Monday that two of the three psychiatrists who have examined Asmerom have said they believe he is mentally competent, but he won’t rule on the matter until next Monday. Serra said that although it’s theoretically possible that the brothers’ trial could start in late August, he thinks there’s a good chance that DuBois may not stay in the case because Asmerom has clashed with him in the past. Serra, who had cleared his calendar in hopes that the trial would be held this summer, said that if DuBois doesn’t stay in the case, another
lawyer would have to be appointed to represent Asmerom and would need time to prepare.