(Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a series about the criminal trial of the BART police officer who shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009. Johannnes Mehserle’s trial took place in Los Angeles instead of Oakland, California, where Grant was killed. The trial was moved out of fear that Mehserle would not get a fair and impartial jury to hear his case. The film “Fruitvale Station” re-tells Grant’s last days.)
Will Justice Prevail for Oscar Grant?
By Dennis J. Freeman
Los Angeles-The anticipation of the jury verdict in a racially-charged, police officer involved shooting death of an unarmed black man in Oakland, California, has gripped the nation.
Possible civil unrest and unruly disturbance is on the minds of every law enforcement agency from Oakland to Los Angeles should a jury absent of any African Americans, come back without a murder conviction of Johannes Mehserle, the white police officer who shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant to death as he laid face down at a train station.
The family of Oscar Grant III wants justice served. Mehserle, a former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Year’s Day, 2009, was caught on video tape shooting Grant in the back at the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland. His fate and justice now rest in the hands of 12 strangers.
With the trial finally nearing the end, members of the Grant’s family are still emotionally shaken from the young man’s death.
“That same pain we felt then, we feel now,” said Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle and family spokesman. “Today, the murder has happened. The world has seen this video. I feel confident in this jury. This jury has been selected to represent this county. The murder of Oscar Grant is enough.”
The trial has taken its toll on Grant’s family and friends. They appear to be physically and mentally drained from the whole ordeal. It has been especially taxing on Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, the past 18 months. Johnson was rushed to a Los Angeles area hospital after slumping over outside the courthouse from exhaustion.
As the outcome of the trial near, community activists and organizations, such as the Los Angeles Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, has become daily staples outside the downtown Los Angeles courthouse. And now that the verdict announcement is imminent any day the national media has begun to trickle in.
Mehserle is looking at substantial prison time, if he is found guilty of murder or 2nd degree murder. Mehserle testified that he thought he had pulled out his Taser instead of his service revolver. Prosecutor Dan Stein challenged Mehserle’s accident theory during his closing argument before jurors.
“Acting from emotion resulted in the death of an innocent person,” Stein told jurors.
During his closing argument, stein ripped the testimony of the three expert witnesses called to testify during the trial by the defense. Stein went after and painted a picture of questionable motives of the defense’s expert witnesses, whether they were driven to give testimony out of monetary ambition.
One of the defense’s expert witnesses, Greg Meyer, has received in access of over $50,000 to show up on the stand and lend his expertise to jurors on the art of using a Taser. Meyer is a former LAPD officer, and is an advisor to Taser International.
“If there is one thing that is clear in this case, there’s a lot of money to be made in this gig,” Stein said.
Michael Raines, the defense attorney for former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, tried his best to present a case of contradiction to jurors in the high-profile, racially-tinged criminal case that could plant a seed of reasonable doubt amid murder charges against his client.
A well-known criminal defense lawyer, Raines has seen this scenario play out before. He has built his career on successfully defended peace officers accused of alleged misconduct, including the “Oakland Riders,” a group of cops who were acquitted from allegations of corruption and accusations of terrorizing black folks in Oakland’s urban community.
In his closing statements, Raines tried to sway jurors with a different version of what took place the morning Grant died. Mehsrele shooting Grant to death in the back as the young man laid face down and unarmed, was not done with deadly intent, Raines said.
Nor was it a matter of negligence. In making that argument, Raines told jurors that they could not come away with first-degree and second-degree murder charges against Mehserle.
With Grant’s mother and other family members sitting in the courtroom, Raines also made it clear to jurors that manslaughter charges should not be up for consideration as well.
“He did not intend to shoot his firearm, Raines said. “That’s why there is no murder (charge). That’s why there is no manslaughter (charge). There has to be an intent or intent to kill. This is an accident, folks-plain and simple. This is what the evidence shows. We don’t have here evidence of criminal negligence.”
Raines’ entire argument centered on the motives of Mehserle, whom he described as “being in a good mood” after arriving on the scene at the Fruitvale BART Station, where a fight had taken place minutes earlier.
Raines suggested to jurors that Mehserle’s actions after the shooting was not consistent with someone who commits an act of malice or with intent. Grant’s character was, he said. Raines openly questioned Grant’s character, noting an altercation with police in 2006, which resulted in the dead man being tasered into submission.
“Oscar Grant resisted from the moment he jumped on the train,” Raines said. “Oscar Grant was involved in the fight on the train. We don’t know what happened in the fight. We haven’t been told the truth. This is a search for the truth. The People of California has an obligation to search for the truth. You are here- we are here, to get to the truth.”
Stein dismissed the defense’s version of the truth.
“We are all entitled to the same justice,” Stein said. “All people, regardless of who they are, are entitled to the same justice. Oscar Grant was one of us and he is entitled to justice. People expect to be protected by the police. But sometimes the police kill people; and they have to be held accountable to the same standard of justice as other people.”