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When a murder trial begins in Oakland, Calif., March 19, public perception of a black separatist group could be on trial almost as much as the defendant. When Eric Lowery saw three members of the Nation of Islam fighting with his friend on a darkened Oakland street in October 1998, he shot and killed Toure Keeble Shabazz. Defense attorney Gary Sirbu is expected to argue that Lowery fired because of his perception that Nation of Islam members presented a danger to him and his friend. That perception will likely become an important part of People v. Lowery, 135778, attorneys and experts say. “I think therein lies one of the issues that we will have to address in this case,” said deputy district attorney Terry Wiley. Sirbu, Lowery’s attorney, declined to comment for this story. Lowery, who was 19 when the shooting happened, awaits trial in Oakland’s North County Jail. He faces the possibility of 40 years to life in prison if a jury finds him guilty of second-degree murder and weapons charges in the death of Shabazz, who was 31. The shooting was the culmination of a feud over noise between Lowery’s drinking buddy, Anthony Pratt, and Robert Muhammad, an NOI member who lived in Pratt’s apartment complex, according to preliminary hearing transcripts. Wiley anticipates that Sirbu will try to persuade the jury to find the defendant guilty of lesser charges by arguing that Lowery believed that Nation of Islam members are dangerous. However, Wiley said, the NOI has little to do with the shooting. “The Nation of Islam is not at issue in this case,” he said. “It had to do with two people who are neighbors. This is pretty straightforward.” If jurors believe that Lowery fired shots because he believed Pratt was in danger of great bodily harm or death, but that the belief was unreasonable under the circumstances, they could opt to convict Lowery of manslaughter. In the defense’s best-case scenario, if the jury believes Lowery killed Shabazz in a “good faith defense of others” — and that Lowery’s belief was reasonable — the defendant could be acquitted, said an attorney familiar with the case. It may be difficult to convince a jury that Lowery, a black man, believed that the NOI is a dangerously violent group, one expert said. “The history of the Nation of Islam has been a history of interfactional violence,” said San Francisco State political science professor Robert Smith. The Nation of Islam has been known to be violent toward internal dissidents, such as Malcolm X, a leader who broke ranks with the NOI and was assassinated in 1965. Generally, the NOI has not been known to be aggressively violent toward outsiders — “especially black people,” said Smith, who is writing an encyclopedia on African American politics. Four notable exceptions were NOI members who were convicted of randomly killing and assaulting white people in San Francisco in the famed “Zebra” murder trials of the 1970s, he said. The actions of NOI members may be harder to predict if they are involved in a personal dispute, Smith added. Smith said the group, which is loosely modeled on traditional Islam, is admired in parts of the black community for its support of self-defense, mediation work and unarmed security services, which it provides in housing projects. Outside the black community, the NOI is perceived differently. People who live outside cities whose exposure to the group “is through the lens of Louis Farrakhan” would be mostly negative because the NOI leader has been criticized for anti-Semitic remarks, he said. Just as the NOI has a complex public face, its role in the Lowery case is also hard to interpret. In this trial, voir dire will be critical, said East Bay jury consultant Howard Varinsky, and it may be tricky for the defense to assemble a good jury. Oakland-Berkeley jurors are more likely to be open-minded about the Nation of Islam because it is active in those cities, Varinsky explained. More conservative southern Alameda County jurors may be suspicious because they would be less likely to have encountered the group personally. “Maybe this defense attorney would want a law-and-order jury where they would come to the same conclusion” as the defendant that the NOI members were dangerous, said Varinsky. However, that approach “could backfire” because conservative white jurors may also have less sympathy for Lowery, a black defendant, Varinsky added. Conservative jurors would also be expected to read the jury instructions carefully to weigh whether Lowery had other options when he decided to use a gun. According to preliminary hearing testimony, Pratt, who had been drinking, was walking on Hilton Street when Muhammad, Shabazz and another member of the Nation of Islam blocked his path. Shabazz reportedly made an offer to mediate the men’s dispute peacefully. Lowery, who also had been drinking, observed the confrontation from across the street, moved in behind the NOI members and fired shots into the crowd after a fistfight broke out, according to prelim testimony. And a day later, according to the transcript, a group of NOI members came to Pratt’s house and beat him in order to pressure Pratt to make a police statement. “This is a tough case,” said Varinsky. “The jury will be dealing with alternatives. Was his friend in immediate danger? Did his friend have room to run?”

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