Pressure wins murder trial in Oscar Grant case

June 10, 2009

Dana Blanchard reports on a court hearing that set the stage for the cop who killed Oscar Grant III to be put on trial for murder.

"THERE'S NO doubt in my mind that Mr. Mehserle intended to shoot Oscar Grant with a gun, and not a Taser."

Those were the words of Superior Court Judge C. Don Clay as he announced his decision June 4 to let former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle stand trial for murder for shooting an unarmed Oscar Grant III at the Fruitvale BART station early on New Year's Day.

The decision came after an unusually long seven days of testimony and legal sparring in Mehserle's preliminary hearing at the Alameda County Superior Court in downtown Oakland. The decision paves the way for the first murder trial of a California police officer for a line-of-duty killing in nearly 15 years.

This historic moment would not have happened without pressure from Grant's family and friends, and those who have been keeping the heat on the district attorney's office to mount a vigorous offense against Mehserle and hold all the police officers accountable.

The Grant family and the families of the other young men with Oscar on the night he was killed were in court every day to witness the preliminary hearing. They wore shirts with Oscar's picture and the words "Gone but not forgotten" on the back.

Demonstrators gather in Oakland to demand justice for Oscar Grant III
Demonstrators gather in Oakland to demand justice for Oscar Grant III (Alessandro Tinonga | SW)

"This is going to be huge for people of color," Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle, said after the decision came down. "The community lacks faith in the judicial system when it comes to police officers."

DEPUTY DISTRICT Attorney David Stein, who is representing the people in the case, used video evidence captured by witnesses on the BART platform the night of Grant's murder to trap the other officers who testified in their web of lies and cover-up.

The video footage contradicted the testimony of officers called to the stand by Mehserle's defense attorney Michael Rains, who described the scene at the station as chaotic. The haunting video images shown in court, along with the audio of the officers verbally abusing Grant and his friends, left no doubt about who the real criminals were on the platform that night: the officers themselves.

In the video, BART officers Marysol Domenici and Tony Pirone are seen repeatedly cursing, hitting and drawing their weapons on the young men, who did nothing but cooperate with officers. The question now for activists who witnessed the events in the courtroom is: Why haven't Domenici and Pirone been charged as accessories to murder?

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Their aggressive actions on the platform helped escalate a situation into one where an innocent man was murdered. Outrageously, both Domenici and Pirone are still paid employees of BART, and haven't been fired or charged with anything.

Domenici, who testified that she was "scared for her life," is seen pushing the young men against the platform wall and waving her Taser around, clearly looking like the person who was scaring people. All of the witnesses who made videos that night testified that they began filming because they saw the police abusing a group of unarmed men, and they felt they needed to capture it on tape.

In a particularly disturbing scene from one of the videos, Pirone is seen pointing his Taser at the line of young men against the platform wall, and while their hands are in the air, the laser site of his Taser can be seen traveling over their chests. Pirone is also heard using the n-word in reference to Grant, and is seen kneeling on Grant's head as Mehserle stands over his feet.

The excuse for this behavior from both Pirone and Domenici was that they were "not being respected"--in other words, people kept asking them, "Why are you doing this?" and calling them names, but were in no way physically threatening them. In fact, Judge Clay even referenced this in his statement at the end of the hearing, stating that Grant and his four friends "did nothing to justify the use of deadly force."

The biggest hole in Mehserle's defense appeared when it became obvious from the video footage and testimony of the other officers and witnesses that Mehserle had no intension of using his Taser. This excuse has been the main tenet of the Mehserle's defense: he meant to use his Taser, not his gun. On the final day of the hearing, when the footage was shown frame by frame, Mehserle could be seen drawing his gun, looking down at it, grasping it with both hands, stepping back and firing at Oscar Grant.

Mehserle didn't take the stand and gave no public explanation for why he felt the need to use deadly force. Pirone testified that Mehserle pulled his weapon because he couldn't get Grant's hands in handcuffs, but when Stein showed Pirone the video and asked him to say what he saw, Pirone admitted that he saw both of Grant's hands behind his back when Mehserle pulled his weapon and shot him.

OUTSIDE THE courtroom each day, activists, family and friends of Grant and supporters from the community gathered to put public pressure on the proceedings inside. The largest rally took place on May 18, the first day of the preliminary hearing, in which more than 100 people gathered.

Rains even commented on this pressure that first day when he pleaded with Judge Clay to "not submit to the mob rule outside." The only way that Oscar Grant will get justice and Mehserle will have a fair trial is if the trial remains in Oakland, and the people of Oakland stay vigilant and organized around holding the court accountable for its actions.

Clay ruled the way he did because of a combination of factors: the sheer weight of the video evidence presented to him, the collapse of the defense with the damaging testimonies of the other officers, the vigilance of the family in court each day, and the public support for Grant that gave him the legitimacy to uphold the murder charge.

While this ruling is an important victory, it's not the end of the road. The struggle to pressure the DA and judge to convict Mehserle of murder has only passed its first hurdle. With Mehserle's arraignment on June 18, we will know more about whether the defense will win its request for the change of venue and when the trial will begin.

For now, those of us who have been active in the fight for justice can breathe a small sigh of relief that one step toward justice has been taken. But as Oscar's mother, Wanda Johnson, reminded us outside court that last day, "None of this will bring Oscar back."

We must continue to struggle for all the young men and women who could be the next Oscar Grant if we don't help convict Mehserle of murder. We want every cop who pulls their gun to think twice.

If we can build a fight to hold this officer accountable, then we can hope to have an impact on all the officers who have gotten away with police brutality and racial profiling.

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