UPDATED (6/10) — 14:30 PDT — LOS ANGELES – Did former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle intend to shoot unarmed passenger Oscar Grant? Was Grant resisting arrest at the time of the incident?
These are questions the jury will try to answer in determining whether Mehserle is guilty of second-degree murder in Grant’s shooting on the Fruitvale platform on New Year’s Day 2009.
Opening arguments began in a Los Angeles courtroom this morning for a historic trial which marks the first time a police officer in California has been tried for murder due to on-duty actions.
In a surprise move before opening remarks even began, a young Hispanic woman was dismissed from the jury today “for cause” after the prosecution and defense conferred in private with Judge Robert Perry. No public explanation was given, and an older Hispanic woman replaced her.
Deputy District Attorney David Stein, who is prosecuting the case, argues Mehserle acted with intent in shooting the 22-year-old Hayward resident and knew the difference between his gun and Taser.
He says witness accounts and numerous cell phone videos of the incident taken by passengers will show Mehserle intentionally drew his gun and shot Grant.
The prosecution plans to argue Grant’s fear of Tasers, stemming from a 2006 incident in which he was shocked after fleeing from San Leandro police, meant he would not have resisted arrest, and that Mehserle used excessive force that night.
“What happens when an officer or group of officers think their duty is other than to protect and serve? […] When they think they have a right to abuse who they come into contact with?” Stein said in his opening statement today. “The answer is chaos, distrust and disorder.”
Stein presented to the jury footage of the incident, as well as a photo Grant took on his cell phone which shows Mehserle pointing his Taser at him.
“Oscar Grant was not resisting. He was in the process of putting his hands behind his back,” Stein said, an argument the defense does not agree with.
Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson told the Beat after watching Stein present video evidence that “it’s difficult every time to watch that video […] but it’s something that needs to be done while we go through this.”
Mehserle’s attorney, Michael Rains, has countered that his client accidentally drew his pistol instead of his Taser in the moments before Grant was shot.
In his opening statement, Rains said Mehserle did not indent to shoot and kill Grant, and will “live his life in the prison of the vivid and painful memories” of that night.
Mehserle was insufficiently trained in Taser use, Rains said, but he had extensive training in operating firearms, including instruction while attending the Napa Police Academy.
Rains said while the prosecution’s interpretation of video evidence shows Grant is not resisting arrest, he will argue such footage actually shows Grant would not allow officers to handcuff him.
Mehserle and Grant wrestled on the ground for 12 seconds before the shooting occured, Rains said.
The defense is planning to use the previous San Leandro incident as indicative of a pattern of Grant resisting arrest.
In a May ruling Judge Robert Perry rejected a motion by the defense to bring up Grant’s parole record at trial, saying it was not relevant to the case and might prejudice the jury against Grant.
Rains today said he wants jurors to focus on audio of the incident, and played grainy video from bystander Daniel Liu and the BART platform camera.
Alameda County prosecutors charged Mehserle with murder two weeks after Grant’s death.
After footage of the incident, which appears to show Grant lying face-down on the concrete before Mehserle shoots a single bullet into his back, was broadcast, residents engaged in both peaceful and violent protests amid renewed discussions of race and community-police relations.
Mehserle is white, while Grant was black. The final jury panel is comprised of seven whites and five people of color, the majority Latinos. In the selection process, June 7 Judge Perry and Rains dismissed all five potential black jurors.
The outcome upset Grant’s family and friends. Grant’s aunt Tracie Cooper said she was worried the jurors “will not know how to relate to a young African American man.”
The trial has been moved to Los Angeles due to concerns over whether Mehserle could receive a fair trial in the Bay Area given the intense publicity the case has received. It is expected to last two to four weeks.