Thousands of people have seen videos of the cold-blooded police murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland. On New Year’s morning BART police officer Johannes Mehserle fired his gun at point blank range into Oscar Grant’s back, killing him as he lay face down on the train platform, hands behind him. A preliminary hearing is now underway to determine whether Mehserle will be charged with murder or whether the charges against him will be lowered. Three days of testimony have already been completed and the hearing will continue on Tuesday, May 26.
This unusual preliminary examination, where the defense is calling its own witnesses, points to the maneuvering of the system and the high stakes in the case. At the vast majority of preliminary hearings in California, the district attorney is the only one to put on witnesses, and the defense only puts on witnesses at trial. But Mehserle’s attorney is using this hearing as an opportunity to put on witnesses to try and lay the groundwork to legally justify this cold-blooded murder and create broad public opinion that Mehserle is innocent.
The courtroom in Oakland was packed as outside about 150 people held a rally against the cold-blooded police murder of Oscar Grant. The following is a reporter’s notebook from the hearing so far.
Five videos by five witnesses played in court
The district attorney called five witnesses who had filmed what happened at the BART station that night. Karina Vargas described how the train was crammed to the gills with people “talking, laughing and having a good time.”
When the train pulled into the Fruitvale station, she heard a commotion near the car directly in front of hers: an angry voice, “You and you get the fuck off the train.” Others testified that another cop, Tony Pirone, came to the train door and shouted, “I know who you are.” “Get off the train before I pull you out.”
Karina saw Oscar Grant and others being lined up against the wall and she started filming. At a certain point she stopped because she thought the youth were just going to be detained or arrested. Then she heard people on the BART start yelling, “Oooh” and she popped out the door and turned her camera back on.
She saw Officer Pirone grab Oscar and throw him against the wall. According to the witnesses and the videos, people on the train were yelling at the police to stop, saying that it was “police brutality” and shouting “Rodney King.”
All of the people who shot videos said that when Mehserle grabbed Oscar and forced him on his stomach, and when Pirone put his knee on Oscar’s neck, that Oscar was not resisting but was cooperating. Karina noticed the red light of the taser being shined on all the youth against the wall.
When she heard the shot she dropped her camera and it hung from the strap around her neck. She saw smoke (from the gun) and saw Oscar on his belly, his chest going up and down, she saw on his face that he was struggling to breathe.
Terrified, she and others ran back on the train yelling, “They shot him, they just shot him.” In her video you can hear her say “I got you motherfuckers.” She said the female officer was behind her as the doors closed, banging on the window. Other passengers told her that the cop was demanding her camera.
During her testimony, the video she recorded was played. Members of Oscar Grant’s family cried quietly as the minutes of Oscar’s murder showed on the big screen, much crisper and clearer than the YouTube versions. Many in the courtroom flinched as they heard the shot.
Karina said her friends could not believe the police had fired a gun and they tried to convince her it was a taser. But when she heard Oscar had died, she called her mom and her mom told her to get the video on the air. During her testimony it was revealed that BART did have a surveillance video cam that caught at least part of the events that night: something BART has previously denied. This video has not yet been shown in court.
Karina said that after Oscar was shot, Pirone and Mehserle turned him over and it looked like they were “checking” him. The district attorney asked her if she meant they were searching him. No, she said, not searching him, but checking him to see how he was.
This testimony goes directly up against the claim by Pirone that both he and Mehserle thought the youths were armed. In excerpts of police reports that have been made public, at least two BART police report that Mehserle said of Oscar, after the shooting and in the following days, “I thought he had a gun.”
Margarita Carazo, Tommy Cross, Daniel Liu and 16-year-old Jamil Dewar all told the same basic story: They recorded the police because what they saw was wrong.
Cross was so shaken by what he had seen that for weeks he could not sleep, and he could not go past the Fruitvale Station without hyperventilating. But he said that he was glad he filmed it because, without the videos, “the police might have tried to sweep it under the carpet.”
In their testimony, these witnesses painted a picture of the widespread outrage of the passengers on the train watching the brutality of the police. Their courage in filming the crime and fighting for the truth and for justice in this case is a striking and important element of this struggle.
Mehserle’s partner caught testi-lying
On Wednesday Mehserle’s attorney called BART Officer Woffinden, the cop who was Mehserle’s partner on New Year’s Eve, to the stand.
Woffinden told the story of a scene in which the police were “outnumbered” by victims. He said he could hear “commotion,” yelling and screaming over the police radio call from the Fruitvale Station. He described a feeling of foreboding, that as he and Mehserle drove to Fruitvale he was uncertain and his adrenaline was pumping.
He said that when he got there he saw the youth, who were lined up against the wall being handled by two police, and instantly formed a “one-person skirmish line” between them and another group of 4-5 young men who kept “advancing” on him, screaming vulgarities and “racist slurs.” He said that the youth showed no respect for authority and did not stop until he threatened them with his baton. He said he was extremely scared the whole time.
This testi-lying was ripped apart when Woffinden was cross-examined by the DA. Woffinden admitted that the call to the Fruitvale Station was only about a misdemeanor battery. And when confronted with one of the videos played at slow motion, he could not point out a single frame to show his claims that he had repeated exchanges with “threatening,” cursing young men. Nor that they were “advancing” upon him as he had claimed. He said he could “not recall” and declined to expand on what he had written in his report or what he had just testified to.
The video showed what people around the world have seen, that it was the officers initiating and committing assaults on compliant detainees. And the video does not show that he ever once raised his baton as he had claimed. Woffinden said that he had tried to call for backup on his radio. When the assistant district attorney asked him how many officers he thought were needed, he replied “20 to 30.”
But the district attorney pointed out that each BART officer has an emergency button he can push when in an intense situation. Woffinden admitted he never pushed the emergency button on his radio and, it seems, neither did any of the other six officers who were on the platform that night.
Dennis Zafiratos, the only one to report the supposed fight, testified for the defense. He said that he thought the fight involved “10-12 young Black males” and a “white male” he identified from a photo shown to him. On cross examination he admitted he didn’t like crowds and felt uneasy about how crowded the BART station was before he even got on a train that night in San Francisco, that because of people’s “unruly behavior” he waited over an hour before going downstairs onto the platform to board a train with his family.
Dennis Horowitch, the man Zafiratos identified as “fighting” with Oscar, had known Oscar in Santa Rita Jail but said on the stand: “I didn’t get in no fight. I’m not going to sit here and say I have a problem with someone.” When Mehserle’s attorney, Michael Rains, suggested that he was afraid of repercussions to his family from the people fighting for Oscar if he testified, Horowitch retorted that he was more fearful of the police, the way he and his family had been harassed.
Oscar’s friends and others there that night say that the men only “wrestled” briefly and that the incident involved only a couple of people, not the “gang” first reported by the media. And Jamil Dewar, a friend of Oscar’s, testified that the incident lasted only a couple of minutes and he had helped to break it up before the train even pulled into the station.
Outside the courtroom, the family told the news media that the testimony showed that Woffinden and BART were lying and still trying to cover up and that this needed to be stopped. “Justice needs to be served,” said Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant’s mother.
John Burris, the civil attorney representing Oscar Grant’s family told the media that no testimony had proved that the youth on the platform had done anything but try to “plead their case” to the BART police. He also commented that Woffinden’s statement about all the youth having “clenched fists” is a “classic police argument” to try to justify the police’s conduct. He said that Oscar Grant, detained, “contained and surrounded by officers” had done nothing to justify use of a gun nor even a taser.
Rains declared that Oscar Grant was “actively, actively, actively resisting arrest.” This is the opposite of what the videos show. And it has so far not been supported by Mehserle’s own witnesses except for Alika Rogers, who thought that the police were “struggling with Oscar Grant’s hands” trying to handcuff him shortly before he was killed.
But even if the police thought Oscar was resisting in some way, he was face down on the ground, being held down by officer Pirone’s knee, surrounded by Mehserle and other cops – what good reason was there to shoot him point blank in the back?
IT WAS COLD-BLOODED MURDER.
Police murder happens every day under this capitalist system. Yet it usually goes unpunished because the system needs to protect its enforcers. But this time, with at least a half dozen video recordings, a rebellion and continued outcry and protest and widespread attention, many people think that Mehserle will certainly be charged and convicted for murder. But people need to ask themselves: Since when has crystal clear evidence of a cold-blooded murder by the police stopped this system from letting killer cops go free?
Remember the trial of the cops who beat Rodney King? No doubt how that “not guilty” verdict was reached is being carefully studied by Mehserle’s attorney. And no doubt the massive rebellion triggered by that “not guilty” verdict haunts those who are trying to figure out how to give the fullest backing to murderous cops – without driving all kinds of people into bitter anger and opposition.
The stakes of this case – and this particular juncture of this hearing – are very high. The defense is using this hearing to drum up public opinion in favor of Mehserle, trying to provide the legal grounds and political support for the judge to let Mehserle off the hook. At this hearing the judge can actually decide to throw this case out, or the charges against Mehserle can be significantly reduced – which would also be an outrage.
In this situation, the political struggle of the people to demand justice for Oscar Grant is extremely important and can make a great deal of difference.
The hearing continues on Tuesday when Johannes Mehserle’s lawyer will call more witnesses. Oscar Grant’s family urges everyone who can to attend the hearing – at the Alameda County Courthouse, 1225 Fallon, 12th Street and Oak, Oakland – and rallies on the steps through the week. Coming by for even a few minutes or an hour will demonstrate to the system that the public demands justice for Oscar Grant.
This story first appeared at Revolution http://revcom.us/a/166/Mehserle_Hearing-en.html. Bay View staff contributed to this report.