A judge ruled today that a man accused of fatally shooting three in-laws at their Oakland apartment on Thanksgiving Day 2006 can no longer represent himself because he has repeatedly engaged in misconduct in front of jurors.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Vernon Nakahara said Asmerom Gebreselassie, 47, "subverted the integrity of the trial" by refusing to follow the court's orders, making what the judge described as "self-serving statements" and trying to intimidate a key prosecution witness by yelling at him.
"I am terminating his right to defend himself," Nakahara said.
Nakahara said Gebreselassie will now be represented by Oakland defense attorney Darryl Stallworth, who represented Gebreselassi briefly last year and had been acting as his legal adviser since Gebreselassie was allowed to represent himself.
The triple-murder trial of Asmerom Gebreselassie and his brother, 43-year-old Tewodros Gebreselassie, was delayed for many years - partly because Asmerom hired and fired attorneys multiple times - but finally started last week.
However, Nakahara halted it on Tuesday after an outburst by Asmerom Gebreselassie, and it won't resume until Thursday at the earliest.
Tewodros Gebreselassie's lawyer, Tony Serra, said today that he wants Tewodros to be tried separately from Asmerom, and Nakahara will rule on that issue Thursday before testimony resumes.
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.
Prosecutor Joni Leventis told jurors in her opening statement last week that Asmerom Gebreselassie shot his in-laws because he mistakenly believed that Winta Mehari and her family members were responsible for the death of his brother, 42-year-old Abraham Tewolde, at his home in Berkeley on March 1, 2006.
She said Berkeley police didn't find any evidence of foul play in Tewolde's death.
Leventis said Tewodros Gebreselassie is also charged in the case because authorities believe he aided Asmerom by letting him into the Meharis' apartment.
She said Mehari wouldn't have let Asmerom into their apartment but allowed Tewodros to come inside because they trusted him.
Asmerom Gebreselassie admitted in his opening statement that he fatally shot all three victims but said he did so in self-defense, alleging that a member of the Mehari family had pulled out a gun.
Leventis said there's no evidence that any members of the Mehari family were armed.
The Gebreselassie brothers 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 convicted.
At today's hearing, which was conducted outside the presence of jurors, Asmerom Gebreselassie told Nakahara, "You're trying to convict me" and "you're prejudiced against me."
He also called Leventis "a liar" and said "I'll talk to the media" to expose what he alleged are lies about the case.