(06-10) 04:00 PDT Los Angeles --
A historic trial over a police shooting captured on video is set to begin here this morning after a prosecutor revealed a final piece of evidence - a photograph he said the victim snapped of the officer who would shoot him just minutes later.
The picture shows then-BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, 28, pointing his Taser at 22-year-old Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale Station platform in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009, said Alameda County prosecutor David Stein. Grant - like many fellow BART riders that morning - had a cell-phone camera.
What happened next is the focus of the trial, which was moved to downtown Los Angeles to find a jury that had not been inundated by publicity about the case in the Bay Area. First up, in a trial expected to last two to four weeks, are opening statements.
Mehserle is the first Bay Area police officer and one of just a few nationwide to be charged with murder for an on-duty action. Prosecutors say he acted with malice when he shot the unarmed Grant once in the back while arresting him. The former officer has yet to give an honest account of the shooting, prosecutors say.
The defense counters that the shooting was an accident, that Mehserle mistakenly squeezed the trigger of his service pistol while intending to shock the Hayward resident with the Taser to subdue him after a fight on a train.
Within the larger dispute over the Taser, the two sides disagree on a critical question: whether Grant was resisting Mehserle at the time he was shot.
Stein says Grant would not have fought Mehserle, in part because he was scared of Tasers after being shocked in 2006 while fleeing from officers in San Leandro.
In a reference to the photo Grant took, Stein wrote in a legal motion, "Mr. Grant knew that the defendant possessed a Taser because minutes before he was shot, he was seated on the platform in front of defendant and defendant was pointing his Taser at him."
But Mehserle's attorney, Michael Rains, says video footage makes clear that Grant would not allow the officer to handcuff him, forcing Mehserle to opt for his Taser. Rains plans to argue that the San Leandro incident shows Grant had a propensity for resisting police.
While the evidence in the case is unique, the verdict in the trial is seen by many people to carry broader implications because Grant was black and Mehserle is white. The killing sparked a riot in downtown Oakland, and police in the city are making plans to deal with more potential unrest if Mehserle is acquitted.
Dion Evans, an East Bay church leader and radio host, said many community activists believe Mehserle would not have been prosecuted had they not pressured authorities.
"The people decided, we are not going to allow something like this to occur again," Evans said. "When we saw the videotape, we were told that what we saw was not what we thought we saw."
Evans said many people want punishment not only for Mehserle, "but for all of the officers before him who got away with transgressions."
A different sentiment is coming from police officers around the state. They are concerned that a fellow cop could go to prison for making a mistake under difficult conditions, said Ron Cottingham, the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California. The group's legal fund is paying for Mehserle's defense.
Grant's killing was "a tragic, tragic circumstance, but the extreme measure of charging this person with murder has just baffled a lot of us and makes you worried about doing your job on a daily basis," said Cottingham, a San Diego County sheriff's lieutenant.
Judge sets stage
In his final pretrial rulings Wednesday, Judge Robert Perry said he would allow jurors to learn of a statement made by Anthony Pirone, a former BART officer who first detained Grant at Fruitvale Station and made the decision to arrest him for allegedly resisting.
Just before Mehserle took Grant to the ground and shot him, video footage shows, Pirone shouted at Grant, "Bitch-ass n-, right? Bitch-ass n-, right?" Pirone was responding to being called the name by Grant, Rains said.
The prosecution believes Mehserle overheard the exchange, and that it contributed to his actions.
The judge also allowed testimony by Grant's girlfriend Sophina Mesa, who says she spoke to Grant briefly on his cell phone before he was shot. Grant, she says, sounded scared and said he was being beaten for no reason.
Finally, the judge said both parties could introduce their own "synchronizations" of video footage of the incident from multiple angles. The defense had argued that the prosecution botched its footage.
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle