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


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

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

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

While prosecutors laid responsibility for Buckner’s death and the subsequent state of her “mutilated and violated” body on Roberts, defense attorneys questioned whether the lack of a specific cause of death in the case unspooled prosecutors’ entire narrative.

Authorities first responded to a report of Buckner’s decapitated and partially-dismembered body on July 20, 2023, after a passerby found it stuffed inside a black plastic garbage bag that was bound with duct tape near the Bay Farm Island Bridge in Alameda. Her head, hands and feet have not been found.

Standing before the jury, prosecutor Courtney Burris asked the jury to focus on what happened before and after that discovery. She described how Buckner’s demeanor changed sometime after she met Roberts at Golden Gate University School of Law in 2019, with Buckner having stopped responding to friends amid alleged “evidence of control” on the part of Roberts. Then, Burris said, came the calls to police from neighbors who 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 yet to be found, Burris said.

“During the time that Ms. Buckner went missing, Mr. Roberts essentially went on with his own life,” Burris told the jury. She also pointed to a note in Roberts’ handwriting, which said simply: “Hands, head and feet removed tattoo.”

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

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

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

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

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

The attorney also sought to explain away the new carpeting and bank account activity after Buckner disappeared, saying the couple shared their financial accounts. Their apartment managers had inspected the carpet months before her disappearance, suggesting it “100% needed to be replaced,” he said.

“Quite simply, there’s insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s guilty of these charges,” Woodson said.

Prior to the trial’s start, prosecutors detailed numerous red flags where police were called to investigate domestic violence or abuse at the couple’s apartment. All 17 of them had the same “fruitless” result, prosecutors claimed, either because police officers would leave after a few knocks or because Buckner insisted she was fine and told officers to leave.

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

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

That ruling factored into an unexpected twist on Wednesday morning – a request by defense attorney Annie Beles and Woodson to declare a mistrial. At the heart of their argument was the notion that Burris repeatedly mentioned details that Patton had forbidden from becoming a part of the proceedings.

The slips were part of an uneven start for Burris, who repeatedly mixed up the names of the victim and her alleged killer throughout her hour-plus statement. Beles specifically asked for a PowerPoint presentation that Burris presented to the jury to be admitted into evidence, after it once misstated Buckner’s name by calling her Butler.

Patton admonished both sides to follow his earlier rulings. But he expressed confidence Roberts would receive a fair trial – noting how he repeatedly reminded the jury that her statements shouldn’t be considered fact, and repeatedly barred her from delving too deeply into inadmissible subjects.

“I find it hard to believe that the jury would be prejudicially inclined toward the defense based on any of the comments made by Ms. Burris,” Patton ruled.

The trial is expected to last more than a month.

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