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Colleague backs BART officer's claim in shooting death

The witness says the officer told him he planned to use his Taser on the passenger, who was then shot with a handgun.

June 19, 2010|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times

A former transit police officer said he planned to fire his electric Taser weapon moments before he drew a handgun and fatally shot an unarmed passenger he was trying to handcuff on an Oakland train station platform, another former officer testified Friday.

Anthony Pirone said his former BART police colleague, Johannes Mehserle, told him that the victim had his hands in his waistband and that Pirone should stand back.

Mehserle fired a single round into the back of Oscar J. Grant III, who lay face-down on the station platform. Grant, 22, died several hours later. Mehserle is on trial for murder.

The racially tinged case — Mehserle is white, Grant was black — was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles after extensive pretrial publicity in the Bay Area.

Pirone's testimony appeared to bolster Mehserle's defense that he had meant to grab his Taser while trying to handcuff Grant but instead mistakenly drew his handgun.

But Alameda County Deputy Dist. Atty. David R. Stein sought to cast doubt on the account, questioning why Pirone didn't stand back sooner if he believed Mehserle was preparing to use a Taser.

Stein also zeroed in on the only remark Pirone said Mehserle made to him after the shooting: "Tony, I thought he was going for a gun."

The prosecutor argued in opening statements last week that Mehserle never told any of the officers he was working with that night that he had mistaken his firearm for his Taser.

Prosecutors allege that Pirone used profanity and unnecessary force on Grant and his friends in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, creating a chaotic scene on the Bay Area Rapid Transit District platform that helped result in the shooting.

Pirone, who was fired from the BART Police Department after Grant's death, recounted in court how he responded to a report of a fight on a train at the Fruitvale station.

He said that he tried to detain a group of men on the platform but that they were uncooperative. Two, including Grant, jumped back on the train, he said.

Earlier in the trial, several train passengers testified that Pirone yelled expletives and used excessive force on Grant and another man.

Pirone admitted using profanity and force to control the men, but he accused Grant and his friends of insulting him and failing to comply with his orders. He said he drew his Taser and threatened to use it as an "intimidation tactic" so they would obey his commands.

He said he did not recall a block of time in which he has been accused of striking Grant with a forearm.

In court, Stein played video footage taken by a passenger using a camera in which Pirone could be seen standing in front of a kneeling Grant yelling profanities and a racial slur shortly before the shooting. Pirone testified that he had been repeating back to Grant what Grant had called him.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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