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Vol. 74/No. 27      July 19, 2010

Trial of Oakland cop who shot
Oscar Grant goes to L.A. jury
(front page)
LOS ANGELES—The trial of former transit cop Johannes Mehserle for the killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year old Black man, in Oakland, California, went to a jury here July 2.

The trial was transferred to Los Angeles after Mehserle's attorney won a change of venue, claiming that the defendant couldn't get a fair trial in the Bay Area because of extensive publicity about the case. There are no Blacks on the jury.

Multiple videos shot by witnesses to the killing show Mehserle shooting Grant in the back Jan. 1, 2009, as he lay on his stomach on the platform at an Oakland Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stop. The shooting took place while another cop, Anthony Pirone, had his knee on the back of Grant's neck and was pushing his face into the platform floor.

The videos and photos taken by eyewitnesses have been widely disseminated on the Internet. The outrage over the killing in Oakland's Black community and throughout the Bay Area resulted in the Alameda County district attorney filing murder charges against Mehserle—a rarity in cases involving a killing by a cop. Judge Robert Perry ruled that Mehserle can't be found guilty of first-degree murder. However, he let stand a possible conviction on a second-degree murder charge.

The BART cops were called to the Oakland train platform after being notified about a fight on a crowded New Year's Eve train. They ordered Grant and some of his friends out of the train. Officer Anthony Pirone grabbed Grant and threw him up against a wall. Grant's friend Jackie Bryson was handcuffed. Mehserle arrived on the platform a couple of minutes before he shot Grant.

Deputy Alameda County prosecutor David Stein said in summing up the case against Mehserle that the defendant's desire to punish “resulted in the death of an innocent person. He must be held liable.”

Stein said that Pirone was “out of control, he was unhinged,” uttering the racist slurs, “Bitch-ass nigger, right? Bitch-ass nigger, right?” at Grant moments before Mehserle shot him. Stein said the two cops were “acting in tandem as police officers do.”

Defense attorney Michael Rains argued throughout the trial that Mehserle had intended to Taser Grant and mistakenly drew his gun instead. Rains claims that Mehserle received inadequate training from the BART police department, resulting in his “confusion.”

Stein also pointed out that Pirone testified that a couple of minutes after the shooting, Mehserle told him, “Hey Tony, I thought he was going for a gun.” Another BART cop, Terry Foreman, also testified that Mehserle told him that same morning that he thought Grant was “going for a gun,” and that Mehserle said nothing about a Taser.

During his testimony, Mehserle cried repeatedly on the witness stand. Rains tried to portray Mehserle as a non-aggressive cop, different than Pirone. He said Mehserle was featured in his high school yearbook as “most huggable.”

In his summation Rains told the jury that a court of law is not the place to “redress social or racial injustice.” He claimed the use of a Taser on Grant was justified because he was “resisting arrest.”

Throughout the trial Rains tried to demonize Grant and his friends. Rains recalled the testimony of a cop in San Leandro, California, about a 2006 incident where the police used a Taser on Grant following a traffic stop. Rains also tried to portray Grant as central to the fight on the BART train prior to the shooting.

Grant's uncle, Cephus Johnson, spoke to the media at lunchtime breaks throughout the trial. He told the press that court rules prohibited the prosecution from being able to introduce into evidence previous attacks by Mehserle, including the beating of an African American male. “The system is to blame, the system denied us the right to produce evidence,” he said.

After the closing arguments were completed the next day, Johnson told the media, “The videos speak for us … to what we have been saying for the past 18 months. A murder took place on that platform.”

The Grant family members have filed a civil lawsuit against BART. Grant's five-year-old daughter was awarded a $1.5 million settlement earlier this year. A claim filed by Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, is pending.
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