A prosecutor told jurors today that two Oakland brothers should be convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and other charges for killing their brother’s wife and two of her family members on Thanksgiving Day 2006 in a misguided act of revenge. In her closing argument in the trial of Asmerom Gebreselassie, 47, and Tewodros Gebreselassie, 43, prosecutor Joni Leventis alleged that they conspired to kill their in-laws at their in-laws’ apartment at the Keller Plaza complex at 5301 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland on Nov. 23, 2006. She said the brothers, who are originally from Eritrea, killed the family members because they mistakenly believed that their in-laws were responsible for the sudden death of their brother, 42-year-old Abraham Tewolde, earlier that year.
Tewolde was married to Winta Mehari and died at the couple’s home at 2238 Russell St. in Berkeley on March 1, 2006. Leventis said two doctors who examined Tewolde’s body looked for signs of suffocation and strangulation but ruled that he died “a sudden, natural death.” Berkeley police also investigated Tewolde’s death and found no evidence of foul play, she said. However, Leventis said the Gebreselassie brothers were still convinced that Tewolde had been killed by Mehari, with the possible assistance of her family members, and “became the judge and jury” by deciding that Mehari and her family members should die.
Leventis said the Mehari family never would have let Asmerom Gebreselassie into their apartment because he had angrily confronted them several times about Tewolde’s death, but that they allowed Tewodros Gebreselassie inside on Thanksgiving because “he had remained quiet and maintained a good relationship with them.”
The prosecutor alleged that Tewodros Gebreselassie “fooled them” about his true feelings and intentions and said “he was sneaky about it, like a snake in the grass.” Leventis said that after Tewodros Gebreselassie ate food and drank a traditional Eritrean coffee drink at the Meharis’ apartment, he called his brother Asmerom on his cellphone and let Asmerom into the apartment. She said Asmerom proceeded to shoot and kill Winta Mehari, 28, her brother, Yonas Mehari, 17, and the Meharis’ mother, 50-year-old Regbe Bahrengasi, “in cold blood.” “This case is about premeditated murder, nothing less,” Leventis said.
She said she believes Asmerom Gebreselassie planned to kill all six adult members of the Mehari family who were at the apartment but Yehferom Mehari, the brother of Winta and Jonas, whom Leventis described as “a hero,” was able to stop him from killing more people. The triple-murder case has split Oakland’s tight-knit Eritrean community, as the Meharis are also from Eritrea, which was once part of Ethiopia but gained its independence 20 years ago.
Supporters of the brothers have packed separate sides of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Vernon Nakahara’s courtroom throughout the long trial, which began on Feb. 8. Bailiffs, who have kept a close eye on the proceedings, have required each side of the courtroom to file out separately to minimize the chances of a confrontation between the rival factions.
Asmerom Gebreselassi, who testified for more than a week, admitted that he killed the three victims but said he did so in self-defense. Gebreselassie said one reason he thinks his in-laws killed Tewolde is that they wanted to collect on a $500,000 life insurance policy he had taken out six months before his death. Gebreselassie also alleged that Winta Mehari wanted to kill Tewolde because he was going to disclose that one of her brothers was gay and was molesting the couple’s young son. He said homosexuality is “unacceptable” in the Eritrean community and the Mehari family would have been disgraced and ostracized if Tewolde’s allegations had been disclosed. But Leventis said today that, “This case is not about homosexuality, it’s about revenge.” Gebreselassie’s lawyer, Darryl Stallworth, told jurors at the end of the day that he thinks they will “find this case is riddled with reasonable doubt and doesn’t hold up and you will find my client not guilty.” Stallworth only spoke for less than half an hour today and will present the bulk of closing argument on Thursday. He will be followed by Tewodros Gebreselassie’s lawyer, Tony Serra. Leventis will then present her rebuttal closing argument.
In addition to three counts of murder, the Gebreselassi brothers are each charged with two special-circumstance murder clauses: committing multiple murders and committing murder during the course of a kidnapping. They also face one count of attempted murder for the nonfatal shooting of Yehferom Mehari, one count of kidnapping for allegedly taking Winta Mehari’s 2-year-old son, Isaac from the scene, and two counts of false imprisonment. If the brothers are convicted, they could face life in prison without the possibility of parole but not the death penalty.
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