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Trial begins in 2009 BART killing

Prosecution says former Officer Johannes Mehserle, who is white, deliberately killed Oscar J. Grant III, who was black. The defense calls the death a tragic error.

June 11, 2010|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times

A former transit police officer deliberately shot and killed an unarmed passenger on an Oakland subway platform while helping another officer who was mistreating a group of men suspected of fighting on a train, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday.

Johannes Mehserle, 28, is charged with murder in the New Year's Day 2009 shooting of Oscar J. Grant III, whose killing sparked outrage and violence in Oakland. The trial was moved to a downtown Los Angeles courtroom amid concern about the extensive media coverage of the killing in the Bay Area.

Alameda County Deputy Dist. Atty. David R. Stein told jurors that the shooting followed an ugly confrontation in which one of Mehserle's fellow officers shouted a racial slur at Grant, who had been detained with his friends on the platform.

"The shooting death of Oscar Grant was the result of emotion taking over discipline," Stein said during opening statements in the trial. "It was the result of anger taking over judgment."

But defense attorney Michael L. Rains said Grant's death was a tragedy that occurred when Mehserle meant to reach for his Taser and grabbed his handgun by mistake.

Mehserle intended to use his Taser to stop Grant from resisting arrest, the attorney said. He blamed a lack of training, in part, for the error.

"This case chronicles the tragic, unintended death of a young man who shouldn't have died, who shouldn't have been shot," Rains told jurors.

Mehserle, who is white, fired a single round as he stood over Grant, who was black and was lying face-down on the subway platform. Grant, 22, was struck in the back and died hours later.

The racially tinged case has evoked parallels with the 1992 trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney G. King. All four were acquitted, sparking riots in Los Angeles.

The shooting was captured on video by several passengers on the crowded train. Some of the footage was broadcast on television and the Internet, provoking angry protests at Grant's treatment. Mehserle, who had been on the force for less than two years, resigned from the department days after the shooting.

Murder charges are rarely filed against police officers in connection with an on-duty shooting, and legal experts say convictions of officers are difficult. The jury, which includes no blacks, is expected to hear testimony for two to four weeks.

Outside court Thursday, a handful of demonstrators held "Justice for Oscar" signs. They and members of Grant's family who attended the trial spoke out against police brutality.

"Our hope is justice," Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, said. "Our hope is that this does not continue to happen to the brown and black races."

The shooting took place about 2:10 a.m. after police were called to the Fruitvale Station when a passenger reported a fight on a train.

Both sides told jurors that the various videos supported their version of events.

The prosecutor showed footage of Officer Tony Pirone pointing a Taser at Grant as he ordered him off the train. Stein said Pirone upset passengers by using profanity and acting aggressively.

The officer pushed one of Grant's friends into a concrete wall and sent him to the ground with a leg sweep, the prosecutor said, adding that he also struck Grant in the head with a forearm and later kneed him. Grant never resisted, Stein said.

Video played in court showed Pirone with his knee on the back of Grant's neck as the victim lay face- down on the subway platform. Mehserle, who was on top of Grant, drew his .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun, stood up and fired into Grant's back.

Stein said Mehserle never told other officers that he had intended to draw his Taser. Instead, he told Pirone moments after the shooting: "I thought he was going for a gun."

But Rains said the video showed Mehserle struggling to handcuff an uncooperative Grant, whom he accused of assaulting Pirone moments before. Rains said Pirone was acting aggressively, but the racial slur he yelled was something he was repeating that Grant had just called him.

Mehserle, Rains said, was so focused on handcuffing Grant that he didn't hear the slur. The attorney said his client told Pirone he planned to use his Taser.

Rains said video footage shows Mehserle having difficulty removing his handgun because he believed he was drawing his Taser, which has a holster with a different unlocking device.

After the gunshot, Mehserle was caught on video looking at Pirone and then putting his hands on his head before bending over, Rains said.

"He is sick to his stomach and wants to vomit because … he just shot a man he did not intend to shoot," Rains said.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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