by Thandisizwe Chimurenga
Day 10 of the People v. Mehserle trial – Thursday, June 24 – ended with the defendant, Johannes Mehserle, taking the stand. Mehserle, a former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer, is accused of murder in the death of Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back while prone at an Oakland rail station on New Year’s Day 2009.
Defense attorney Michael Rains’ initial line of questioning sought to humanize his client, asking about his family life and what he was voted “most” of in high school: Mehserle was voted “Most Huggable.”
It stood in stark contrast to the line of questioning on June 22, which sought to portray the victim, the 22-year-old Grant, as a violent aggressor.
Judge Robert Perry interrupted Rains’ initial line of questioning twice, saying, “We have to get to the case.”
Rains’ questioning turned to how Mehserle became interested in police work and his enrollment at the Napa Valley Police Academy in July of 2006 and his graduation in December of that year.
Rains also elicited testimony from Mehserle about his training, focusing extensively on the practice of drawing a gun from a holster and developing “muscle memory.”
While still a cadet at the Napa Academy, Mehserle attended a recruitment event with representatives from BART and other agencies. He applied and after a three-month process was sworn in as a BART officer in March of 2007.
Rains continued to question Mehserle about his training as a rookie officer with the agency and Mehserle’s attempts to develop his own “style.” Mehserle said that prior to BART he came from a customer service-type background and his style was one of communicating with people. “I wasn’t very hands on,” he said.
Court ended for the day after Mehserle had been on the stand for only about an hour. Prior to leaving, Mehserle told how he answered the call to assist at the Fruitvale transit station. He said he and his partner that night, Jon Woffinden, arrived at the station in about five minutes, coming from the West Oakland station.
Mehserle said there was “lots of noise upstairs.” He could hear noise when he first got out of the car downstairs – yelling, screaming – and his concern was the two officers upstairs.
He then stated that, as he arrived on the platform, he saw three people “advancing” toward former officers Tony Pirone and Marysol Domenici. “They looked like they were going to interfere,” he said.
According to his recollection, Mehserle says there were four people seated against wall and he identified Oscar Grant and Jack Bryson as being “upset.”
Mehserle stated that he saw Pirone and Domenici had their tasers out and he took out his also, focusing in on Grant and Bryson. He said the two were yelling about Pirone, saying, “Eff him, eff that officer,” and, “I’m going to sue him.”
Mehserle says he got them to settle down, and that he asked Oscar Grant to put his cell phone away.
Prior to Mehserle taking the stand, Michael Schott, a forensic video image analyst retained by the defense, wrapped up two days’ worth of testimony at the trial. His testimony focused on sequences of images from the six videos of what took place on the BART Fruitvale train station platform in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2009.
As opposed to playing the videos in court, Schott played various frames of the video, slowly progressing through them and not replaying the videos in their entirety. The videos he showed have not been enhanced; they were somewhat blurry and although Schott stressed that he was only giving his interpretation of the videos, he kept eye contact with the jury throughout his testimony and spoke authoritatively.
During Deputy District Attorney David Stein’s cross examination, he began by asking Schott about his law enforcement background and how many cases he had testified in where police officers had been accused of misconduct. Schott was somewhat evasive in his answer, and replied probably more than 50 cases.
Schott also specializes in police practices litigation and has written for The Tactical Edge Magazine, which is marketed to law enforcement personnel.
Stein asked him, point blank, if his law enforcement background possibly made Schott biased toward law enforcement; Schott denied it did.
Later, Stein asked Schott, in relation to the videos, whether he thought it would be helpful to listen to an audio of the videos as he watched them. Scott replied, “It doesn’t necessarily change what is on the screen.”
Stein began to challenge Schott regarding specific scenes in the videos: “In this case, where observers and witnesses reacted to Oscar Grant being struck by Pirone, are you saying that’s not what they saw?” he asked. Schott replied, “There is no doubt they are mistaken.”
Regarding Pirone kneeing Oscar Grant, Stein asked Schott, “Did you factor in what you heard in your interpretation that Officer Pirone did not strike Oscar Grant in the head?”
Scott said, “No, I am looking to see if his foot left the platform.”
At one point during his testimony, Schott testified that, just before Pirone placed his knee on Grant’s head and neck area, that Pirone could be seen in the video “placing his hand between Oscar Grant’s head and the concrete pavement.”
With pronounced incredulity in his voice, Stein asked Schott, “Is that what you believe?”
Rains says he will call his last witness on Monday, June 28. The case should go to the jury by the end of the week.
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.
Editor’s note: Listen to Hard Knock Radio at http://kpfa.org/archive/id/62141 for an excellent report on the dramatic developments in court on Friday. Hard Knock’s Anita Johnson interviews both Bay View reporters covering the trial, Thandisizwe Chimurenga and Minister of Information JR.