Trial begins for suspect in six-year-old Berkeley killing

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Six years after the death of Berkeley native Keith Stephens, the man accused of killing him has started standing trial.

Opening arguments began last week in Alameda County Superior Court as Deputy District Attorney Stacie Pettigrew told jurors that defendant Bahsson Carl Smith, now 31, almost got away with murder when he blamed another man for Stephens’ death.

On Feb. 19, 2006, at about 7:10 p.m., Berkeley Police Department officers found Stephens shot to death in front of 1256 Carrison Street in southwest Berkeley. Officers responded to 911 calls from community members who reported hearing gunfire in that neighborhood, said department spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss in a press release issued after Smith was charged in 2009.

Stephens, who was 24 at the time of his killing, was a former Berkeley High School student. He was described as very popular and was one of three Berkeley High students profiled in the book “Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School, a Glimpse Into the Heart of a Nation” by Oakland author Meredith Maran, according to a report by Bay City News.

“The Keith Stephens I knew was a joyful, charismatic kid working hard to become a responsible adult,” Maran wrote shortly after Stephens’ death.
According to Bay City News, Pettigrew told jurors that on the night of Stephens’ death, Stephens went to collect a debt owed to him by his friend Kamassa Palmer at the home of Palmer’s girlfriend, Nora Miranda. When Miranda would not reveal Palmer’s whereabouts, Stephens became angry and broke a window in Miranda’s car, according to Pettigrew.

Smith was a friend of Miranda and knew Stephens. He tracked Stephens to the home of an acquaintance after learning about the broken window, according to Pettigrew. Pettigrew told jurors that when Stephens opened the door, Smith said, “What’s up, cuz,” before shooting Stephens in the chest at short range, according to Bay City News.

Pettigrew said that when police arrested Smith four days after the shooting on suspicion of domestic violence and vandalism, he asked to speak to homicide detectives and implicated Palmer in Stephens’ death, according to Bay City News.

“He was arrested for a different incident and later released,” Pettigrew said. “In 2006, he committed a series of robberies near the Cal campus, and he was in prison for robbery when the eyewitness made the identification.”

Detectives developed strong leads in the case but did not have any cooperative witnesses or enough evidence to make an arrest. The file remained open for three years as police detectives periodically pursued various angles before Smith was identified in the homicide of Keith Stephens, according to the press release from Sgt. Mary Kusmiss.

In 2009, Smith was served with an arrest warrant for the alleged murder while in prison. He has completed the time that he was required to serve for a conviction stemming from the robberies but remains in custody on the pending charge, Pettigrew said.