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A Berkeley man was convicted of first-degree murder today for the shooting death of popular former Berkeley High School student Keith Stephens six years ago. Jurors deliberated for about two days before reaching their verdict against 31-year-old Bahsson Smith, who faces a state prison term of 50 years to life when he’s sentenced by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson on June 22. Smith faces 25 years to life for his first-degree murder conviction plus another 25 years for his conviction for using a gun to kill Stephens. Smith’s lawyer, Darryl Stallworth, said he was disappointed by the jury’s verdict because he thinks the prosecution’s lone eyewitness in the case wasn’t credible because he’s a convicted felon, has a history of drug use and mental health problems and was motivated to talk to authorities by a $15,000 reward.
Stallworth said Smith may have “talked himself into a guilty verdict” by making statements in phone calls from jail that were recorded by authorities that indicated that he knew key facts about the case. Stallworth said Smith’s recorded comments “didn’t amount to an admission” that he killed Stephens but he thinks “they left a bad taste in
the minds of the jurors.” Prosecutor Stacie Pettigrew said that in his jail phone calls and his statements to Berkeley police Smith disclosed details of the fatal shooting that only the killer would know. She said Smith’s most directly incriminating taped statement was his response to a friend who had complained that people who alleged that he was the killer were lying. “They’re not” lying, Smith said, according to Pettigrew. The prosecutor told jurors in her closing argument on Monday that Smith “thought he was getting away” with murder by trying to blame the shooting on another man, telling his friends in his phone calls from jail “they ain’t got enough evidence” against him and “I ain’t worried.”
Pettigrew said Smith presented himself to Berkeley police as a witness to Stephens’ shooting in the 1200 block of Carrison Street in southwest Berkeley on Feb. 19, 2006, and shifted the blame to Kamassa Palmer, a friend who had been in a dispute with Stephens shortly before he was killed. But she said the eyewitness, who asked that his name not be published because he fears for his safety, eventually identified Smith as the person who killed Stephens. Pettigrew admitted that the eyewitness has issues because of his criminal history and his drug use but she said his testimony was corroborated by the evidence in the case. Stephens, 24, was a former Berkeley High School student and junior college football player. He was described as very popular and was one of three Berkeley High graduates in the class of 2000 who were profiled in the book “Class Dismissed” by Oakland author Meredith Maran.
Pettigrew said Stephens was infatuated with cars and that was a factor that led to the series of events that culminated in his shooting death. Pettigrew said Stephens had sold an old Buick to Palmer but he was mad at Palmer for not paying him the full amount he was owed, so on the evening of Feb. 19, 2006, he went looking for Palmer because he felt taken advantage of and was upset. Pettigrew said Stephens went to the home of Palmer’s girlfriend, Nora Miranda, but when she wouldn’t tell him where Palmer was he broke a window in her car. That act of vandalism ultimately cost him his life, she said. Smith was a friend of Miranda and he tracked down Stephens a short time later when Stephens went to an acquaintance’s home in the 1200 block of Carrison Street, Pettigrew said Pettigrew alleged that when Stephens opened the door of the home, Smith said, “What’s up, cuz,” shot Stephens in the chest at short range, then got in a car and drove away.
She said that when Berkeley police arrested Smith four days after the fatal shooting on suspicion of vandalism and domestic violence against his girlfriend, he asked to speak to homicide detectives and implicated Palmer in Stephens’ death. Stallworth said in his closing argument that there’s no physical evidence which proves that Smith was the person who killed Stephens. “There’s no video, no fingerprints, no DNA and the shotgun was never recovered,” Stallworth said. Stallworth said it appears that Stephens was “a very nice man” with a nice family but he thinks Stephens “set the whole tragedy in motion” by seeking Palmer “in anger and rage” and telling Miranda that he wanted to kill him.
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