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Jurors urged to acquit BART officer of murder charges

The defense attorney for Johannes Mehserle, who is accused of killing an unarmed man, says 'a court of law … is not a forum to redress social injustice or racial injustice.'

July 02, 2010|By Jack Leonard, Times Staff Writer

Describing the trial as an "epic case," a defense lawyer urged a Los Angeles jury Thursday to acquit a former Bay Area transit police officer charged with murder in the New Year's Day 2009 shooting of an unarmed man in Oakland.

Attorney Michael L. Rains told jurors that they should put aside any temptation to decide the racially charged case in a way that would seek retribution for the victim or provide a commentary on the "sad legacy" of police abuse of minorities.

"A court of law … is not a forum to redress social injustice or racial injustice," Rains said in his closing argument in a packed downtown courtroom.

His client, Johannes Mehserle, a former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer, sat silently staring ahead as he has throughout most of the three-week trial.

Rains argued that Mehserle, 28, intended to grab an electric Taser weapon on his belt but mistakenly drew his handgun as he struggled to handcuff Oscar J. Grant III on the platform of a BART train station.

Mehserle testified last week that he intended to use his Taser because he believed Grant, 22, might be reaching for a gun in his pants pocket. While Mehserle's firearm was on his right side, the Taser was in a holster on the left side of his belt but angled so that it could be pulled out with his right hand.

Rains reminded jurors that two people, including a friend of Grant's, testified that they heard the officer say he intended to use the Taser shortly before the shooting. And the lawyer said at least six other officers have made the same mistake of firing a handgun when they intended to use a Taser.

It is rare for police officers to face a murder charge in an on-duty shooting.

Mehserle, who is white, fired one round into the back of Grant, who was black and lying face down on the ground. The shooting, which was filmed by several witnesses, provoked protests and violence in Oakland. Mehserle, who had been an officer for less than two years, resigned from the department about a week later.

Alameda County Deputy Dist. Atty. David R. Stein told jurors that Mehserle intentionally fired his handgun shortly after an ugly confrontation in which another officer shouted a racial epithet at Grant.

"The defendant's desire to punish, his desire to belittle, his desire to mistreat Oscar Grant … resulted in the death of an innocent man," Stein said.

Stein noted that the officer had practiced how to draw and fire his handgun countless times. And he disputed defense claims that Grant was uncooperative, noting that numerous witnesses testified that Grant largely complied with police orders.

Stein showed jurors Mehserle's holster, which was specially designed to make it difficult to remove his handgun. The officer had to use his thumb to push down and forward on a rotating hood before using his thumb to push a lever back to release the Sig Sauer .40-caliber pistol. The gun requires 6 1/2 pounds of pressure on the trigger to fire a round.

"The gun didn't just go off," Stein said.

After the shooting, Mehserle never told officers on the platform that he had meant to grab his Taser. The prosecutor reminded jurors that Mehserle instead told two officers in the hours after the shooting that he had thought Grant was going for a gun.

Stein described the comment as a convenient justification and questioned why Mehserle didn't warn fellow officers that Grant might have a gun before shooting if the explanation was true.

Stein will have another chance to speak to jurors Friday. He has yet to address testimony by several witnesses who said Mehserle looked shocked after firing the shot.

Video footage shows the officer holstering his firearm immediately after the shooting and putting his hands on his head. One of Grant's friends testified that the officer cursed, saying, "Oh ---, I shot him."

Jurors can consider whether to acquit Mehserle or find him guilty of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. Closing arguments are expected to conclude and jury deliberations begin Friday.

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