Opening statements begin in triple murder trial

February 8, 2011 2:14:44 PM PST
Opening statements began Tuesday in the trial of two brothers accused in the Thanksgiving Day massacre of three in-laws at the family's Oakland apartment in 2006.

A prosecutor in the case alleged this morning that Asmerom Gebreselassie, 47, and Tewodros Gebreselassie, 43, killed their in-laws out of revenge for the death of their brother because they didn't believe that he died of natural causes.

In her opening statement in the long-delayed trial, prosecutor Joni Leventis alleged that they wanted to kill 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 brother.

Leventis said Berkeley police concluded that there wasn't any foul play involved in Tewolde's death at the couple's Berkeley home on March 1, 2006, and alleged that the brothers' "inability to accept his death led to this."

The shooting happened at the Keller Plaza apartment complex at 5301 Telegraph Ave. in Oakland at about 3 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2006.

Killed were Winta Mehari, the Gebreselassies' 28-year-old sister-in-law; her brother, Yonas Mehari, 17; and their mother, 50-year-old Regbe Bahrengasi.

Leventis alleged that Asmerom Gebreselassie was the shooter and Tewodros Gebreselassie was a crucial accomplice by letting them into the Mehari family's apartment.

She said the Mehari family wouldn't let Asmerom into their apartment because he had threatened them, but they allowed Tewodros to come inside that Thanksgiving Day because they still trusted him.

Showing jurors a photo of the Mehari family, Leventis said they will "never see a holiday together again" and said their family "was forever changed" by the shooting.

Asmerom and Tewodros are each charged with three counts of murder and 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 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.

The brothers could face life in prison without parole, but not the death penalty, if they're convicted.

The brothers and the victims in the case are all from Eritrea and the case has split Oakland's Eritrean community, with supporters of both the brothers and the victims packing the courtroom during many of the hearings.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Vernon Nakahara, who is presiding over the case, has ordered tight security to make sure that the trial isn't disrupted.

One reason the case has been delayed for many years is that Asmerom Gebreselassie has hired and fired a number of lawyers. He has now been allowed to represent himself and will present his opening statement later today.