A prosecutor told jurors today that Bahsson Carl Smith "was really close to getting away with murder" but evidence eventually tied him to the fatal shooting of popular former Berkeley High School student Keith Stephens six years ago.
In her opening statement in Smith's trial, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Stacie Pettigrew said Smith presented himself to Berkeley police as a witness to Stephens' death in the 1200 block of Carrison Street in southwest Berkeley on Feb. 19, 2006, and shifted the blame to a friend.
Pettigrew said Smith, 31, "took a life (Stephens') and almost took the life of a second man by trying to blame the murder on him."
She said Smith "was incredibly arrogant" about not being arrested for Stephens' death and told friends that authorities didn't have any evidence against him.
However, Berkeley police later uncovered evidence that tied Smith to Stephens' death and arrested him in August 2009. He was in state prison in Folsom at the time to serve his sentence for his conviction for committing a series of robberies in Berkeley's south campus area between November 2006 and February 2007.
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.
Shortly after Stephens was killed, Maran said "everybody loved him" and described him as "funny, generous, giving and rambunctious."
Pettigrew said today that Stephens "loved football" and "had a thing for cars," a factor that led to the series of events that culminated in his shooting death.
Pettigrew said Stephens had sold an old Buick to his friend Kamassa Palmer but he was mad at Palmer for not paying him the full amount he was owed.
The prosecutor said Stephens had gone to church with his family early in the day on Feb. 19, 2006, but in the evening he went looking for Palmer because "he felt taken advantage of" and "was incredibly 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 tracked down Stephens a short time later when Stephens went to an acquaintance's home in the 1200 block of Carrison Street, Pettigrew said.
She said Smith went there "to take care of business because he doesn't like it when someone messes with his friends."
Pettigrew said Smith knocked on the home's door and Stephens opened the door because he knew Smith.
She said that in a rapid sequence of events, Smith said, "What's up, cuz," shot Stephens in the chest at short range and drove away from the scene.
Pettigrew said that when Berkeley police arrested Smith four days after the fatal shooting for domestic violence on his girlfriend and vandalism he asked to speak to homicide detectives and implicated Palmer in Stephens' death.
She said Palmer seemed to be the "logical suspect" to Berkeley police and Stephens' family at the time because of the dispute he'd had with Stephens over the old Buick.
However, in subsequent statements to police over the course of several years Smith disclosed details of the shooting that only the killer would know, Pettigrew alleged.
Smith's attorney, Darryl Stallworth, told jurors that at the end of the trial he will ask them to find Smith not guilty because he doesn't think the prosecution has enough reliable evidence to prove its case against him.
Stallworth said the prosecution's main eyewitness "lacks credibility and trustworthiness" because he has felony convictions for drug, fraud and theft offenses and was under the influence of drugs, alcohol and medication on the night that Stephens was killed.
Stallworth said the case is "challenging" and told jurors they may have "some belief that my client (Smith) had something to do with this."
But he said he also thinks "you will conclude that the person who is responsible is Kamassa Palmer."
Pettigrew estimated that Smith's trial will take at least several weeks.