by Thandisizwe Chimurenga
Mehserle is charged with murder in the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting death of an unarmed and prone Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale BART platform. Mehserle resigned from the agency in January 2009 on the day he was due to speak with BART investigators regarding the shooting, and Pirone and Domenici were fired by the agency this spring based on recommendations from a private firm investigating the incident.
Pirone was the first officer to arrive on the station platform the morning of Jan. 1, 2009, and witnesses say it was his aggression that led to Grant’s shooting by Mehserle. Domenici was the second officer on the scene, her presence requested by Pirone to help detain a group of Grant’s friends as they were leaving the south-bound train.
Domenici’s testimony, which began Thursday afternoon, was confusing and complicated as she answered many of the questions posed by Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Stein with explanations. Judge Robert Perry interjected on more than one occasion, saying, “That’s not what he’s asking.”
Stein’s “theory” in court was that Domenici exaggerated the danger on the Fruitvale platform to investigators in order to justify her fellow officers’ actions and Grant’s shooting.
In preliminary hearings last year Domenici testified that she feared for her safety when she arrived on the platform because of what she said were the “hundreds of people” coming toward her as the doors opened on the train. During this week’s testimony the number became “40 to 50,” however. When Stein showed video from a BART surveillance camera of Domenici arriving on the nearly empty platform, Domenici said the camera “did not show everything.”
Videos also showed that Domenici was looking in an opposite direction at the point that Grant was shot. When asked by Stein why she did not take out her weapon when she heard the gunshot she said it was because of the expression on her fellow officers’ faces. “If it had been one of us, the reactions would have been different,” she said.
Pirone, dressed similarly to Mehserle in a light grey business suit and yellow tie, appeared calm and cooperative on the witness stand. This was in stark contrast to his actions in the moments before Grant was shot with Mehserle’s 40 caliber Sig Sauer automatic pistol.
Pirone was in the process of pulling Michael Greer off the train when numerous witnesses stated in court that he threw the young man into a concrete wall and then proceeded to throw him to the ground and handcuff him. Pirone stated that he “nudged him towards the wall; Greer put his hands on the wall, pushed himself back and spun around, took a fighting position, clenched fists, left foot in front of right, like a boxer ….” Saying that he “didn’t want to get hit,” he grabbed Greer by his dreadlocks and pulled him over his leg and onto the ground.
Pirone at many points did not remember many of the details of the morning of Jan. 1, 2009, and at other points he remembered things quite vividly. He denied knowledge of walking over and striking Grant as graphically depicted in one of the videos played in court, saying that he “does not remember that whole block of time” from the point of walking over to Oscar Grant until Mehserle shows up.
Pirone’s memory of the “conversation” surrounding the use of the racial slur is most interesting.
Pirone, who had threatened repeatedly to Tase the young men that morning, stated Grant told him, “I’ve got a 4-year-old daughter. I respect the police.” Upon hearing this, Pirone said he took this as a sign of a commonality between the two and thought that “we could now have a dialogue like adults.” Seizing on the commonality, he says he asked Grant, “What would your daughter think” about the way he is acting now. That’s when he says that Grant called him a “bitch ass n—–.”
In the video played in court, Pirone is heard yelling the slur at Grant twice, at which point Mehserle begins to slam Grant down.
At this point, Pirone says he heard Mehserle say: “Tony, Tony, get up, get back. I’m going to Tase him ….” Pirone then stated on the stand that he thought it was “odd” that Mehserle was telling him to get up because he (Pirone) had “control.”
After Grant was shot, Pirone says he thought Mehserle’s Taser had “malfunctioned” because he looked at Grant’s back “looking for the probes from the taser.” He says he then saw Mehserle holding his gun with a two-handed grip. Pirone then told Mehserle to handcuff Grant and said he remembered looking at Grant’s back and seeing the hole in his shirt; the round that had been fired from Mehserle’s gun was on the outside of the front of Grant’s shirt, looking silver and “mushroomed.”
At this point, Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, began weeping in the courtroom.
After Pirone radioed to get an ambulance, he says that Mehserle stated to him, “Tony, I thought he was going for a gun.” Asked by Stein what he said in response, Pirone replied, “Yeah.”
Just prior to the testimony of the two former BART officers, the prosecution called Sean McCann as another expert witness in defensive tactics.
McCann, a former Berkeley, Calif., police officer who is certified by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST), testified to the various “less than lethal” options available to most officers, including chemical agents and batons, and that part of an officer’s training usually includes objectivity and patience. “If emotions are not held in check, they can affect an officer,” he said.
Stein’s questioning of McCann was short, however. On cross-examination by Michael Rains, attorney for Mehserle, the session was longer and elicited a statement that many court observers felt was favorable to Mehserle.
McCann recounted how, after an encounter with a suspect that included fighting in the street and a foot chase, McCann subdued the suspect up against a wall with one hand and “noticed” that he had his service weapon in the other hand pointing to the man’s head. “I don’t know how I did that,” he said.
Rains took the opportunity to seize upon this. However, on re-direct, Stein clarified that the two situations were almost polar opposites, with McCann’s perpetrator being in the 6-foot range and close to 300 pounds. Oscar Grant was 5’8” tall and weighed approximately 160 pounds, as he lay on the concrete platform.
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a community journalist and a founder and host of Some of Us Are Brave, a Black women’s public affairs show on KPFK-Pacifica Los Angeles. She has worked with the L.A. Watts Times newspaper, the KPFK Evening News and Free Speech Radio News. She is currently covering the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the killer of Oscar Grant, for the Bay View and several other Bay Area news organizations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @OscarGrantTrial.