A judge today ordered two 18-year-old Oakland youths to stand trial on a murder charge in connection with the fatal shooting of an innocent bystander outside the Bay Fair BART station in San Leandro in January. Prosecutor Mark Melton said the shooting death of 50-year-old Kenneth Lee Seets while he waited for a bus at about 12:20 p.m. on Jan. 19, a sunny Saturday afternoon, occurred because defendants Jabrie Bennett and Andre Smith were both armed with guns and an escalating war of words broke out between the two men and their respective groups of friends.
Melton described the two groups of young people as “armed camps” and blamed Bennett for “pouring gasoline on the premises” and creating a tense environment that led to the shooting. Melton said Bennett fired the shot that killed Seets but he believes Smith, who didn’t know Bennett before the incident, is equally responsible because he lifted his jacket, placed his hand on his gun and walked toward Bennett, prompting Bennett to open fire. Melton said Smith’s movement “was the kind of act that foreseeably may cause someone to act in a dangerous manner.”
Although the shooting occurred a short distance outside Oakland’s borders, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jon Rolefson agreed with Melton that Smith’s conduct was aggressive, saying, “That act in Oakland these days is sufficiently provocative.” Evidence at the three-day preliminary hearing for Bennett and Smith indicated that Bennett, two females and another male were waiting for a bus after they had shopped at the Bayfair Center shopping mall when Smith, his younger brother, who is a juvenile, and another young male also came to the bus area. BART Police Officer Michael Maes said in a probable cause statement that Bennett was carrying a .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle in a red duffel bag and Smith had come to the station with a loaded and concealed handgun in his waistband.
Melton said Smith’s younger brother also was carrying a gun and the third youth with Smith and his brother was carrying a replica gun. Alameda County District Attorney Inspector Nicole Elder testified today that a witness who was at the bus stop told authorities that a suspect in one of the groups said, “I’ve got something and I could handle this situation real quick” and a suspect in the other group responded by saying, “We’ve got something, too, we can handle this situation.” Melton said Bennett fired three shots, fell after he backed into a pole, and then fired seven more shots, one of which struck and killed Seets, who was sitting near Smith. Smith’s younger brother then responded by firing five shots at Bennett’s group, Melton said.
Smith’s brother was prosecuted separately in juvenile court, he said. Smith’s lawyer, Barbara Thomas, argued that Smith didn’t cause the shooting, saying that he merely “walked over there to see what was going on, not to provoke.” Thomas said, “Jabrie Bennett alone is responsible for the death of Mr. Seets.” Bennett’s lawyer, William Locke, said Bennett should only have to stand trial for manslaughter, not murder, because he believes Bennett opened fire since he feared that Smith would shoot him. Locke said someone who fears for his life “can reply with deadly force.”
Rolefson said he doesn’t believe Bennett’s life was in immediate danger because Smith hadn’t removed his gun from his waistband but Locke said it only wound have taken Smith “a heartbeat” to take out his gun and shoot it. However, Melton said, “Neither side can say they acted in self-defense” because both Bennett and Smith were armed and acted in an aggressive manner. “They’re both responsible for the ensuing carnage,” Melton said. Bennett and Smith were also both charged with assault with a deadly weapon for a shot that grazed a woman who was at the scene but Rolfeson dismissed that charge because he said it wasn’t clear who shot the woman.
Rolefson also ordered Bennett to stand trial on an attempted murder charge for shooting a juvenile at 89th Avenue and Hillside Street, near Castlemont High School, on Jan. 17, two days before the shooting in San Leandro. Melton said Bennett is accused of firing a total of 11 shots at the victim, who was a student at Castlemont, striking him once in the back. The preliminary hearing was the second for Bennett and Smith. Their first hearing in June ended with a different judge ordering them to stand trial on lesser charges but the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office re-filed the case in a second attempt to have them stand trial for murder.
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