After deliberating for two days, a jury on Wednesday convicted a Berkeley man of first-degree murder in the shooting death of 24-year-old Keith Stephens six years ago.
Bahsson Smith, 31, faces a state prison term of 50 years to life when he's sentenced by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson on June 22: 25 years to life for the first-degree murder conviction plus 25 additional years for using a gun to kill Stephens.
Smith's lawyer, Darryl Stallworth, said he was disappointed by the jury's verdict since the prosecution's lone eyewitness in the case is a convicted felon, has a history of drug use and mental health problems, and was motivated to talk to authorities by a $15,000 reward.
Stallworth allowed that Smith may have "talked himself into a guilty verdict" by making incriminating statements in phone calls from jail that were recorded by authorities. The comments "didn't amount to an admission" but "left a bad taste in the minds of the jurors" nonetheless, Stallworth said.
Prosecutor Stacie Pettigrew said that in those calls and in his statements to Berkeley police, Smith disclosed details of the fatal shooting that only the killer would know.
The prosecutor told jurors in her closing argument on Monday that Smith "thought he was getting away" with murder by trying to blame the shooting on another man, telling his friends in his phone calls from jail "they ain't got enough evidence" against him and "I ain't worried."
Pettigrew said Smith presented himself to Berkeley police as a witness to Stephens' shooting in the 1200 block of Carrison Street in southwest Berkeley on Feb. 19, 2006, and shifted the blame to Kamassa Palmer, a friend who had been in a dispute with Stephens shortly before he was killed. But she said the eyewitness, who asked that his name not be published because he fears for his safety, eventually identified Smith as the person who killed Stephens.
Pettigrew also said evidence corroborated the testimony of the eyewitness.
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 profiled in the book "Class Dismissed" by Oakland author Meredith Maran. After his death, Maran said the Stephens she knew was a "joyful, charismatic kid working hard to become a responsible adult."
Pettigrew said Stephens, an avid car fancier, had sold an old Buick to Palmer but grew angry that Palmer had failed to pay the agreed-upon price.
On the evening of Feb. 19, 2006, Stephens went looking for Palmer at the home of his girlfriend, Nora Miranda. When she refused to divulge Stephen's wearabouts, Stephens smashed her car window, Pettigrew said. Smith, a friend of Miranda's, tracked Stephens down a short time later at a home on the 1200 block of Carrison Street. Pettigrew alleged that when Stephens opened the door of the home, Smith shot him in the chest at point-blank range, then fled in a car.
When Berkeley police arrested Smith four days after the fatal shooting on suspicion of vandalism and domestic violence against his girlfriend, he asked to speak to homicide detectives and implicated Palmer in Stephens' death.
Stallworth said in his closing argument that no physical evidence proves that Smith was the person who killed Stephens.
"There's no video, no fingerprints, no DNA and the shotgun was never recovered," Stallworth said. Stallworth said it appears that Stephens was "a very nice man" with a nice family but he thinks Stephens "set the whole tragedy in motion" by seeking Palmer "in anger and rage" and telling the girlfriend that he wanted to kill him.
-- Bay City News Service