Appeals court overturns suspect's conviction in Oakland triple murder

A state appeals court in San Francisco has overturned the conviction of one of two brothers in a 2006 triple murder in Oakland, but upheld the guilty verdict and sentence of life in prison without parole for the other.

Asmeron and Tewodros Gebreselassie were convicted after a four-month trial in Alameda County Superior Court in 2011 of murdering their brother's widow and her brother and mother during an extended-family Thanksgiving dinner in the mother's North Oakland apartment on Nov. 23, 2006.

A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal on Wednesday unanimously upheld the conviction and sentence of three life terms without parole for Asmeron Gebreselassie, 53, who was identified by witnesses as the
gunman in the shooting.

The court overturned the conviction of Tewodros Gebreselassie, 49, who was said by prosecutors to have aided his brother by signaling that the in-laws had gathered and then letting him into the apartment.

The court said the trial judge, Vernon Nakahara, should not have allowed a police sergeant to testify that he believed Tewodros Gebreselassie did not tell the truth when he said in a police interview that he did not know his brother was coming to the apartment and did not open the door for him.

There is a reasonable possibility that the improper opinion testimony "tipped the scales in the jury's assessment of Tewodros's credibility and thus denied him the fair trial he was entitled to," Justice Peter Siggins wrote for the court.

The brothers were part of a close family of 11 siblings who had emigrated to Oakland and Berkeley from Eritrea.

Asmeron Gebreselassie mistakenly believed that the in-laws were responsible for the sudden death of his brother Abraham Tewolde in 2006, prosecutors said at the trial.

The victims were Tewolde's widow, Winta Mehari, 28; her mother, Regbe Bahrenegasi, 50; and her brother, Yonas Mehari, 17.

The decision requires a new trial for Tewodros Gebreselassie, unless prosecutors successfully appeal to the California Supreme Court or decide not to retry him.

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