Thursday, August 26, 2010

Murdering BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle’s Case Goes to the Jury

The trial of Bay Area Rapid Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle which began June 10th has ended and jurors began their first full day of deliberations at 8:30 today in Los Angeles. On January 1st 2009 Oscar Grant was riding on the BART in Oakland when he was pulled from the train at the Fruitvale station by BART officers responding to a disturbance call. Despite begging for his safety, pleading not to be beaten or tasered he was instead shot in the back while lying prone on his stomach with two other BART officers restraining him. One with his knee firmly planted in his neck the other the other on his torso.

Today may be the day when we find out if shooting a unarmed non resisting Black man in the back is against the law when police do it.

The defense in this case scored a major early victory in getting the trial moved from Alameda to Los Angeles County, and may have hit the lottery with the appointment of the Judge Robert Perry. They were able to successfully argue that Mehserle would not have been able to receive a fair trial had he been subject to a jury in Alameda County, but the real plum in getting the trial moved to Los Angeles County was this. There hasn’t been a jury to convict an officer in Los Angeles County for an on duty shooting in 30 years.

As Earl Ofari Hutchinson reported on July 4th

The instant defense attorneys got an Oakland judge to move the trial of former BART officer Johannes Mehserle charged with gunning down Oscar Grant to Los Angeles, Grant family members and supporters demanded that the Justice Department prosecute the case.

The selection of a jury with no blacks, the alleged pro police bias of the judge and the wide latitude given the defense to introduce favorable evidence and testimony for Mehserle, and exclude damning evidence and testimony against him, and the exclusion of black journalists seeking to cover the trial, has raised a nervous jitter about the outcome. On the eve of a trial verdict, there’s the deep fear that Mehserle will be acquitted.

Link to Earl Ofari Hutchinson's thoughts

During the trial defense attorney Michael Rains had a simple plan. He tried to convince the jury that Mehserle had no intention of shooting Oscar Grant with a bullet, but had instead been trying to deploy his taser against an unarmed non resistant citizen.

Mehserle testified that, ever since his academy days, he constantly practiced drawing a gun from a holster. "It was the tool that was going to save your life," he said.

The Taser was different, he said. He was trained to use the shock weapon a month before the shooting, and first carried one about a week after that.

He didn't practice drawing it, he said, because BART didn't give every officer a Taser to keep with them and take home. Instead, an officer finishing a shift would pass a Taser and a Taser holster to an officer coming on.

On the night of the shooting, Mehserle said, he got a Taser holster that was set up for a right-handed draw. But during some previous shifts, he said, he carried his Taser in a way that necessitated a left-handed draw. He said he was still figuring out which type of draw he preferred.

"There was no emphasis put on the pull" of the Taser at BART, Mehserle said. "For me, it wasn't that big of a deal. ... It was just another tool on your tool belt."

Link to reporting of Mehserle's testimony

Rains bolstered the argument that the shooting was unintentional by calling witnesses to testify as to Mehserle's reaction after the shooting.

Almost every witness who either recorded video of or saw former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle fatally shooting Oscar Grant III in the back testified last week that Mehserle looked surprised after he pulled the trigger of his gun.

Most of the witnesses said Mehserle immediately re-holstered the gun after firing, put his hands to his head and looked "shocked," "dumbfounded" and "stunned."

Even Carlos Reyes, a friend of Grant's who sat about 2 feet away from the 22-year-old Hayward man when he was shot, said Mehserle appeared shocked and shouted, "Oh (expletive), oh God, I shot him," after the bullet entered Grant's back, causing his death hours later.

Mercury News accounts of the defense case

The prosecution did what it could do. It tried to portray the shooting as a lack of training and the results of Officer Mehserle’s anger. It used the video’s multiple times and the testimony of eyewitnesses to show that there was nothing to justify the treatment that Oscar received on that night. All the indications I’ve seen show that the Alameda District prosecution team led by David Stern has put forth the best effort it could.

Prosecutor David Stein went even bigger at the close of his rebuttal argument. He pulled a 2-foot bronze statue of "Lady Justice" out of a cardboard box, pointed to the blindfold and the sword and the scales, and said, "Blind justice is blind equality - that's what we strive for."

SF Gate article discussing the closing arguements

According to the experts it doesn’t look very promising for a conviction on the most serious charge murder.

Excessive-force cases usually hinge on the intentions of the officers involved, which can be difficult to prove. Defense experts, such as those called by Mehserle's attorney, dissect video footage and present a contrary view of events that focuses on the perceptions of the officers at the time they used force.

"It makes the video less of a so-called smoking gun," said Levenson, who has attended portions of the trial.

Los Angeles Times article on the prosecutors close

The jury has the opportunity to convict Mehserle of the lesser and included charge of manslaughter or criminal negligence. However questions remain as to if such a finding is going to be satisfying to the residence of Oakland, and the leaders of Oakland are acting accordingly by putting police on long shifts and preparing for civil disobedience. Calls for calm and introspection are going out far and wide regardless of the verdict, and I repeat that call. Justice simply can’t be found on the street, and the tragedy of Oscar should not be compounded by other people being injured as a result of his death.

Justice for Oscar Grant.

Update 10:00 am pst

Hat tip to Cali Scribe

Jury deliberations in the murder trial of a former Bart officer have been postponed for the day because a juror is sick, KGO is reporting.

According to a court spokesperson, deliberations are expected to resume on Wednesday in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the report said.

Mercury News link to the news of the deliberation delay

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