A 1999 slaying involving the daughter of a legendary Raiders receiver is back in court this week, two years after the case became a black eye for the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office.
Mohammed Haroon Ali allegedly strangled Tracey Biletnikoff to death in a San Mateo drug rehab center. A jury convicted him in 2001 of murdering the daughter of former Raider Fred Biletnikoff. But in 2009, an appellate court threw out the conviction, ruling that prosecutors had fabricated the reasons for dismissing at least one of two black jurors. Ali is a native of Fiji.
The prosecutor was Steve Wagstaffe, now district attorney. He denies manipulating the jury pool and said he views the retrial as a chance for redemption.
Wagstaffe said his greatest obstacle will be people’s memories of a 13-year-old crime.
“People have moved on,” he said. But of about 70 witnesses, Wagstaffe said, only one has died and about two are out of the country.
“Fortunately, they get a chance to read original statements,” he said of the jurors.
At issue in the retrial is whether the killing was murder or manslaughter.
Ali, 36, admitted to strangling Biletnikoff, 20, during an argument. They met in 1997 at a drug rehab program. While recovering as addicts, they became counselors and began dating.
Prosecutors say he strangled her with his hands and a T-shirt after an argument at the program’s office. Her body was found near Cañada College in Redwood City. Ali fled to Mexico in Biletnikoff’s car and was arrested while returning across the border.
Ali’s attorney, Peter Goldscheider, argues that the killing came in the heat of passion and was manslaughter. Such a conviction would slash decades off Ali’s previous sentence of 64 years to life in prison.
This time around, jurors will hear arguments never heard from the defense during the first trial, Goldscheider said Friday. Unlike the last trial, Ali plans to testify, he said.
The attorney declined to disclose case specifics before jury selection.
Jury selection begins today and will last a few weeks, Goldscheider said.