By Brenda Kahn
Four and a half years after he was brutally murdered by gunfire in his family’s Oakland apartment, a jury today announced guilty verdicts in the case of former Berkeley High School student Yonas Mehari.
The complex, five-month murder trial concerned three victims — Yonas, age 17 at the time; his mother Regbe Bahrengasi, age 50 at the time; and Yonas’ sister, Winta Mehari, age 28 at the time — who were all gunned down on Thanksgiving Day 2006.
Yonas Mehari was a senior at Berkeley High at the time of his death, which occurred in his family’s Oakland apartment during the course of their Thanksgiving celebration. The jury found two brothers, Asmerom and Tewodros Gebreselassie, guilty of first-degree murder in the triple-murder case. They were also found guilty of associated charges, including kidnapping of Yonas’ nephew and Winta’s son Isaac, who was 2 years old at the time of the shootings.
The verdicts were reached last Thursday following several days of deliberation, but the announcement was delayed until this morning, leaving a sense of suspense over the three-day Memorial Day weekend.
The two defendants were related to the three victims through marriage: the defendants’ brother, Abraham Gebreselassie Tewolde, had been married to Winta Mehari when he died of unknown causes earlier in 2006.
The prosecution portrayed the murders as an act of revenge on the part of the Gebreselassie brothers, who, according to the prosecution, believed that Winta Mehari and her family had caused the death of their brother Abraham. Both the victims and the defendants are Eritrean, and the case has shaken up the East Bay’s large and close-knit Eritrean community.
During the trial, under Alameda County Superior Court Judge Vernon Nakahara, supporters of the victims’ family typically sat on one side of the courtroom, while the supporters of the defendants’ family sat on the other, with the two camps maintaining their distance in the hallways outside the courtroom during breaks in proceedings.
“It’s been a while and it’s about time for the (victims’) family to get the justice they need,” the prosecutor, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Joni Leventis, said to reporters outside the courtroom after the verdicts were read.
The defense team, which included noted trial lawyer Tony Serra, maintained that the 2006 Thanksgiving Day killings were the result of self-defense.
On hand for the reading of the verdicts was a contingent of friends and relatives of the Mehari family, including Merhawi Mehari, an older brother of Yonas. “Thanks to God. Justice has been served,” he told this writer.
The bodies of all three victims were shipped to Eritrea for burial soon after the murders. At the courthouse today, Mehawri Mehari shared with the media images of Yonas and his family, including photos of the three graves in Eritrea.
Meanwhile, the defense team said today that they would make a motion for a new trial at the sentencing hearing, which is scheduled for August 2.