Murder trial begins in case of ‘mutilated’ body found stuffed in garbage bag at Alameda estuary

OAKLAND — The grisly discovery on the shore last year of a Pleasanton woman’s decapitated and dismembered body — and the potential lack of concrete evidence on exactly how she died — took center stage Wednesday during opening statements in her boyfriend’s murder trial.

Responsibility for the murder and beheading of Rachel “Imani” Buckner in July 2023 has been the subject of intense debate as Alameda County prosecutors opened their case against Joseph Roberts, 43, who faces to a murder charge and sentencing enhancements for the woman’s death.

While prosecutors placed responsibility for Buckner’s death and the subsequent state of his “mutilated and raped” body on Roberts, defense attorneys questioned whether the lack of a specific cause of death in the case case had unraveled the prosecutors’ entire story.

Authorities first responded to a report of Buckner’s decapitated and partially dismembered body on July 20, 2023, after a passerby found him stuffed in a black plastic trash bag tied with duct tape near the Bay Farm Island Bridge in Alameda. His head, hands and feet have not been found.

Before the jury, prosecutor Courtney Burris asked the jury to focus on what happened before and after this discovery. She described how Buckner’s behavior changed sometime after meeting Roberts at Golden Gate University Law School in 2019, with Buckner stopping responding to her friends amid alleged “evidence of control” on the part by Roberts. Then, Burris said, came calls to police from neighbors who had heard arguing from the couple’s Pleasanton apartment.

The prosecutor also described how Roberts dated women he met on Tinder almost immediately after Buckner’s last known exchange with Roberts on July 13, 2023. He told one woman how his girlfriend had died, despite the fact that Buckner’s body had not yet been found, Burris said.

“During Ms. Buckner’s disappearance, Mr. Roberts essentially moved on with his own life,” Burris told the jury. She also pointed to a handwritten note from Roberts, which simply read: “Tattoo of hands, head and feet removed.” »

She said Roberts’ DNA was later found on the bag and duct tape was used to keep it closed. The carpet in their Pleasanton apartment also appeared to have been changed, she said.

“I want you to pay attention to what makes sense and what the totality of evidence is,” Burris added. “This is not an ‘Ah-ha’ case, where you only have one piece of irrefutable evidence that tells you exactly what happened.”

In opening statements, Roberts’ attorney emphasized the fact that no evidence exists explaining how exactly Buckner, 27, died.

“The story was a bit like a novel, except it was missing the most important chapter,” said defense attorney Charles Woodson.

Woodson said Roberts never fled or destroyed Buckner’s belongings, such as his phone, which were left in the apartment after he disappeared.

The lawyer also sought to explain the new rug and bank account activity after Buckner’s disappearance, saying the couple shared their financial accounts. Their apartment managers had inspected the carpet months before it went missing, suggesting it “100 percent needed to be replaced,” he said.

“Quite simply, there is not enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty of these charges,” Woodson said.

Before the trial began, prosecutors detailed numerous red flags that police were called to investigate domestic violence or abuse at the couple’s apartment. All 17 of them had the same “unsuccessful” outcome, prosecutors claimed, either because the officers left after a few shots or because Buckner insisted she was fine and told the officers to leave.

Also in earlier court motions, prosecutors detailed a journal entry written by Buckner while she was under psychiatric care in early 2022 that reflected two options for her life. One involved being with Roberts and living as “a broken pet” and “his slave,” prosecutors alleged. The other option involved fleeing to Costa Rica, Puerto Rico or Senegal.

Judge Scott Patton had ruled earlier, however, that only part of this evidence would be admissible at trial.

That decision factored in an unexpected twist Wednesday morning: a request from defense attorney Annie Beles and Woodson to declare a mistrial. At the heart of their argument was the idea that Burris repeatedly mentioned details that Patton had barred from participating in the proceedings.

The errors were part of an uneven start for Burris, who repeatedly mixed up the names of the victim and her alleged killer throughout his more than hour-long statement. Beles specifically requested that a PowerPoint presentation Burris presented to the jury be admitted into evidence, after he once misstated Buckner’s name as Butler.

Patton urged both sides to follow his previous decisions. But he said he was confident that Roberts would receive a fair trial – noting that he repeatedly reminded the jury that his statements should not be taken as fact, and repeatedly forbade them from delving into matters. inadmissible subjects.

“I find it difficult to believe that the jury could have a prejudicial attitude toward the defense based on the comments made by Ms. Burris,” Patton ruled.

The trial is expected to last more than a month.

California Daily Newspapers

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