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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Oakland murder case falls apart after defense raises questions about impugned detective’s investigation

OAKLAND — A Bay Area man has been released from jail in a plea deal that saw prosecutors drop murder charges against him in exchange for a voluntary manslaughter conviction, after the defense cast doubt on the investigative work by a detective who has since been charged with perjury.

Atiba Barnes, 37, was arrested last year in the 2008 killing of 38-year-old Kevin Grant in Oakland. In June, Barnes pleaded no contest to manslaughter in a plea deal with Alameda County prosecutors. While Barnes was formally sentenced for three years, the deal allowed him to be freed after half that time, leading to his release from jail this month.

Barnes’ lawyer, Deputy Public Defender Daniel Taylor, said in a statement to this news organization that his client killed Grant in self-defense after Grant and an unnamed friend attempted to rob him.

“This wasn’t murder,” Taylor said, later adding, “If Mr. Barnes had not defensed himself, this man could have killed him or other people.”

Barnes’ prosecution came to be viewed in a different light after one of the lead investigators, Det. Phong Tran, was charged last April by the Alameda County District Attorney with perjury and bribery for allegedly encouraging a woman to falsely identify a murder suspect in an unrelated case. Tran is awaiting trial, and his attorney recently got one of the bribery counts against him thrown out.

A month after Tran was charged, Barnes’ attorney filed a motion saying that the prosecution’s discovery revealed Tran travelled to New Jersey to visit a key witness in the Grant homicide investigation, a former significant other of Barnes named Shacree Stevens. During the interview, Tran allegedly told Stevens he could “put her up in the Hamptons” if she cooperated, the defense motion says.

Furthermore, Taylor accused Tran of fabricating part of a sworn statement that was filed in court and says Grant was shot as he “attempted to flee.” That claim, Taylor said, “is not supported by the evidence.”

Grant was shot and killed on Jan. 14, 2008, near a fast-food restaurant at 7th and Market Streets. One thing both authorities and the defense agree on is that Barnes, Grant and their two respective friends met that day to conduct a pre-arranged marijuana deal.

Barnes was identified as a suspect in 2020, and prosecutors filed the murder charge against him. It wasn’t until 2022, though, that police were able to locate Barnes and bring him to county jail.

The defense says that Grant planned to rob Barnes that day — that a witness reported that Grant picked up a friend named “D-Low” and retrieved a gun from a cabinet, which was unusual for him to do, then headed to the meetup. Taylor added that ballistics evidence indicates two guns were fired that day, and that after the shooting Barnes told his friend, “I had to pop that fool, it was either pop him or let him pop us, you know?”

Furthermore, when Tran and another detective interviewed Stevens, she claimed that Barnes had admitted to shooting a man in self-defense to avoid being robbed at gunpoint. Tran later included the admission in his investigative report, but omitted Stevens’ mention of the self-defense claim, a defense motion says.

“Nowhere in Detective Tran’s Investigative Action Report (IAR) does it include Shacree Steven’s statement that Atiba Barnes described the California homicide as self-defense,” Taylor wrote in court filings. “In fact, Detective Tran writes in his IAR, ‘Shacree stated she does not have specific details to the homicide Atiba said he committed because she did not want to know the facts.’”

Tran’s lawyer declined to comment.

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