As we all know, early in the morning, New Years Day, 2009 on the Fruitdale transit platform in Oakland, BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot an unarmed passenger, Oscar Grant, in the back, killing him. Mehserle (who quit the force after the killing) is now on trial in Los Angeles, the first time in California history that a police officer has been charged with murder for a line-of-duty shooting. (see video below)
Those seem to be the only facts everyone’s agreed on. Oh, and that Oscar Grant was black and Mehserle is white.
To attend the trial, if you’re not a member of the Grant family or the Mehserle family or a credentialed representative of the media, you show up at Los Angeles Superior Court at 7:30 AM to get a lottery ticket from the Public Information Officer outside the building at 210 West Temple Street. At 7:45, there’s a drawing to see which members of the public get seats, either for the morning session beginning at 8:30 or the afternoon session at 1:30. I didn’t know this so I wasn’t part of the lottery, but there was some empty space in Judge Ronald Perry’s courtroom (Ninth floor, Room 309) at 1:30 on Tuesday, June 22 and I was allowed inside.
This is a very partial account of a small portion of the trial which I offer only because coverage has been so minimal in LA.
The afternoon session began with a continuation of testimony from Jackie Bryson and with my wondering what it’s like to be him: 23 years old, staying calm and composed despite badgering by defense attorney Michael Rains, having to remember and testify about the night when his close friend was killed. He told about police officers Tony Pirone and Marysol Domenici who shouted profanity and insults. Rains challenged him: Why hadn’t he complained about this at the time when interviewed that night by the police? As Bryson testified, and repeated when questioned by prosecutor Deputy District Attorney David Stein, he was in shock after the killing and afraid of the police.
Bryson recalled arguing right back at Domenici and how Oscar intervened and got him to calm down, saying, Be cool. We want to go home tonight. “This is why I don’t understand why he was shot,” said Bryson quietly.
He told how Pirone and Mehserle piled on top of Oscar, one with his knee on his neck; how Oscar cried out that he couldn’t breathe. The police officers ordered Give me your arms, and Oscar Grant couldn’t, they were on top of him, “he’s telling them he can’t move.”
As the testimony went on, it was clear the police were asking for his arms–body parts, for his hands and wrists to be handcuffed. As I read the next day, a journalist from the Bay Area mistook the exchange and reported they were asking Oscar to give up his weapons. Oscar Grant had no weapons. In fact, the dispatcher in directing police to Fruitvale because of a reported fight, specified “no weapons.” Oscar Grant was unarmed, and I hope the jurors understood this better than the reporter did.
Jackie Bryson testified: “He [Mehserle] says, ‘Fuck this.’ He stands up. He shoots him.”
Johannes Mehserle’s defense is that in confusion, he drew his service revolver thinking it was a Taser gun, that he meant to stun, not to kill.
“I jump up trying to convince myself they didn’t just shoot him. Then I see smoke coming out of his back. They roll him over. There’s blood,” Bryant said. “His eyes are open but he ain’t there. I’m saying let me talk to him. I can keep him here. I know you don’t want him to die. Call an ambulance!”
Jackie Bryant told how he kept trying to get to the body of his friend but the police were on top of him, restraining him. An ambulance. He kept asking for an ambulance, and heard, “When you shut the fuck up, we’ll call an ambulance.”
Bryson was taken away in handcuffs, thrown into a cell–“a cage,” he said, “with just a bench”–and left there for hours, till 7:30 AM, asking every cop who passed if they could remove the cuffs because his arms were falling asleep, the cuffs hurt. Meanwhile, Officer Pirone kept coming around to laugh at him and smirk.
Pirone was fired by BART because of his behavior on the platform that night as well as what he did afterward. Domenici was fired too, for lying as part of a coverup. Just a single afternoon of testimony made me think Mehserle is not the only cop who ought to be on trial.
BART officer Jon Woffinden began his testimony on Tuesday afternoon as well. He was Johannes Mehserle’s partner that night. The defense got him to talk about how the adrenaline was flowing because of an incident shortly before they arrived at the Fruitdale platform when they went chasing after a suspect who turned out to have a handgun. Even Judge Perry seemed skeptical. The suspect “was disabled and bleeding….Had he pointed a gun or anything? Done anything other than try to get away from the officers?”
Later, Woffinden acknowledged that the scary suspect had landed on the ground after jumping from a platform 40-60 feet high. As he lay bleeding, “on the verge of unconsciousness, eyelids fluttering, eyes rolling back,” officers found a gun in one of his pockets.
Officer Woffinden was not directly involved in the abusive and lethal situation. He had his back to the action, creating what he called “a one-man skirmish line” to make a boundary between the officers and passengers coming off the train. Civilians shouted abuse at him, he said, and one man threw a cell phone at him. Other passengers threw things at him too. Like what? “Paper.” He didn’t actually witness the shooting, but when he turned around after it occurred, “I could tell that he [Mehserle] was upset by his facial expression and perspiration on his forehead. His mouth was sort of open. Scared. Shocked.”
Woffinden told his partner, “We’ll take care of it.”
I have questions:
- How will Oakland react to the verdict? The Oakland journalist sitting next to me in court (not the one who got the facts wrong) is worried.
- Was there an ulterior motive for charging Mehserle with murder rather than manslaughter? Surely, it made the DA look serious. The murder charge played well with the furious community, but given how hard it will be to prove intent in this case beyond a reasonable doubt to twelve jurors, did the DA’s office think the more serious charge would make an acquittal more likely?
- If Oscar Grant hadn’t died on that platform, would Pirone and Domenici have been fired? Would their abusive behavior ever have come to light or been punished? How many other BART officers do the job Pirone-style? I’m old enough to remember 1992, when a BART officer shot 19-year-old Jerrold Hall in the back of the head, killing this black youth who had given the officer no reason–other than his race–to suspect he was armed or dangerous or that he’d committed a crime.
Did I miss something? The officers responded with a show of force to a report of a fight. They pulled four young men off the train. They killed one of them. How serious could the fight have been if no one mentioned any passenger being injured or needing assistance?
Other witnesses, including friends of Oscar Grant, testified that Mehserle looked shocked after the shooting. But why? Because he made a lethal mistake? Or because after killing Oscar Grant, he suddenly realized he would have to face the consequences?
Does the BART force include vigilantes who consider themselves above the law? Or are they poorly trained and incompetent? Whatever the verdict in the trial, it’s fair to conclude the community is faced with officers who are Armed and Dangerous.
Diane Lefer’s new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.