BART shooting case centers on video footage

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

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(05-18) 18:19 PDT OAKLAND -- Everyone in the courtroom knew it was coming, and they knew exactly when it was coming. Still, the bang of the gunshot that killed BART rider Oscar Grant, preserved on video, made several people flinch in their seats.

Murder cases don't typically feature a replay of the death in question, over and over.

But Grant's shooting early New Year's Day in Oakland got two airings Monday - on a 52-inch flat-panel television, no less - on the first day of a preliminary hearing for former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, who is charged with murdering Grant.

The widely seen video footage shows the white BART officer shooting Grant, who was black, as the 22-year-old Hayward man lay unarmed on the Fruitvale Station platform. The case outraged many people and prompted protests, some violent. Some police watchdog groups and African American community leaders, among others, said the shooting was part of a larger problem of police brutality against young men of color.

Monday's session was the first of what will surely be many days in court in which attorneys, witnesses and video experts dissect whether the footage shows a murder or something else.

Prosecutors say the footage is evidence that Mehserle shot Grant for no good reason. Attorneys for Mehserle believe the videos can support their contention that the officer fired his service weapon while intending to stun Grant with a Taser, and thus should be charged with nothing more than manslaughter.

The opening day of the hearing in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland made clear the importance of the videos, as prosecutor David Stein called two BART riders who recorded the incident to the witness stand.

Both said they had not seen Grant resist police before he was shot by Mehserle, 27, in the aftermath of a fight on a train.

Then the witnesses' tapes rolled on the television in the third-floor courtroom, and those in the gallery sat rapt.

"The tapes, the tapes, the tapes," said Michael Cardoza outside court. The defense attorney and former Alameda County prosecutor is observing the proceedings but not involved in the case. "That's the crux of the case - the millisecond that it actually happens."

Painful to watch

Cephus "Bobby" Johnson, Grant's uncle, said that seeing his nephew get shot over and over "is really striking to the soul. It's very painful each time I look at that video, and I'm sure for the rest of the family it's very painful. But we know this is something we have to go through at this time to get justice for Oscar." After the hearing, expected to last about two weeks, Judge C. Don Clay must decide whether to bring Mehserle to trial before a jury.

Defense attorney Michael Rains did not call any witnesses Monday - he'll get his chance later, and has issued a number of subpoenas - but he hinted at the defense strategy with his questions.

He suggested that the scene on the BART platform at the end of New Year's Eve night had been chaotic and that Grant had resisted Mehserle, pushing upward as the officer tried to arrest and handcuff him. Sources said Rains will also rely heavily on video footage of the shooting after hiring experts to enhance it and isolate key images.

The prosecution's witnesses Monday, Hayward residents Karina Vargas and Margarita Carazo, were on the same packed Dublin-Pleasanton train as Grant. Both said they started filming after concluding that officers were being too aggressive.

Disorderly scene

Vargas said one BART officer, identified by authorities as Tony Pirone, had sworn at Grant and four of his friends, ordered them off their BART car and taken one of them to the ground. Carazo said a BART officer had pulled Grant off the train by his shoulders and pushed him into a wall.

Some riders, including friends of Grant, began to swear at the officers, the prosecution witnesses said. "It definitely looked like at any point (the other riders) would start throwing things," Vargas said, "or even rioting."

At one point, Vargas said, Pirone forced Grant into a squatting or sitting position on the platform. Soon, she said, Mehserle put Grant on his chest and tried to handcuff him as Pirone assisted. Seconds later, Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot Grant in the back.

"From what it looked like to me, (Grant) was cooperating and had his hands behind his back," Vargas said. She admitted, however, that she had gotten distracted and had not seen the actual shooting.

Under cross-examination, Vargas said Mehserle had raised his hands to his head after the shooting and had a "dumbfounded" look on his face. Rains has said this is consistent with an accidental shooting.

Vargas also said Mehserle had not been as forceful as other BART officers on the platform before he shot Grant.

"He wasn't that aggressive at all," Vargas said. "He was handling him kind of rough, to put him in cuffs. ... (But) he looked like he was doing what he had to do."

The hearing in front of about 50 people, including family members of both Grant and Mehserle, began after Rains lost his bid to disqualify the office of District Attorney Tom Orloff from prosecuting the case.

Rains said Orloff had improperly sought to question Mehserle by sending two Oakland police officers to see him in January after Mehserle's attorneys made it clear he did not want to talk. But Judge Clay said Rains had not shown that Mehserle could not get a fair trial because of what Orloff did.

Outside the courthouse, about 100 protesters held signs reading, "Justice for Oscar Grant." Later, they marched to Oakland police headquarters several blocks away. Witnesses said a protest organizer was arrested after the group blocked traffic; an Oakland police spokesman did not respond to an inquiry.

E-mail Demian Bulwa at

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle



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