Accident or intentional? Jurors get case in California transit shooting

By Greg Risling, AP
Friday, July 2, 2010

Jurors get case in California transit shooting

LOS ANGELES — A jury was asked Friday to decide if the shooting of an unarmed black man by an ex-San Francisco Bay area transit officer was a tragic accident or an intentional act.

Superior Court Judge Robert Perry instructed the panel for about 45 minutes before a lunch break. Jurors were expected to begin deliberating later in the day.

Former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle, 28, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant after a fight drew officers to the Fruitvale train station.

Grant was shot while lying face down on the platform, as several bystanders videotaped the New Year’s Day 2009 incident.

In his closing argument, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Stein said jurors should convict Mehserle because the evidence has proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Don’t convict the defendant because of sympathy or favor,” Stein said. “Convict him based on the evidence in this case.”

Defense attorney Michael Rains argued for acquittal, saying the shooting was a tragic accident. He cited testimony that his client had inadequate training to prevent weapons confusion and witnesses who said Mehserle appeared to be in shock after shooting Grant.

“On Jan. 1, 2009, Johannes Mehserle fired a single gunshot and it brought him to this place before you, and you are his shot at justice,” Rains told jurors, citing a line from the 1982 legal drama “The Verdict,” starring Paul Newman.

Mehserle put his arm around Rains after the attorney concluded four hours of arguments over two days.

Mehserle testified that he mistakenly pulled his handgun instead of his Taser stun gun before Grant was shot. He resigned from the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency after the shooting.

Not to be outdone by the theatrics of Rains, Stein showed jurors an 18-inch bronze statue of Lady Justice and explained why the figure carries a scale and is blindfolded.

Police officers are supposed to protect and serve, not abuse their authority as occurred in this case, Stein said.

“We also entrust them with our lives and our fellow citizens,” Stein said. “Oscar Grant represents one of those citizens.”

Mehserle’s trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of excessive media coverage and racial tensions that boiled over into violence in Oakland.

Mehserle is white and Grant was black. Another officer was heard on video uttering a slur before the shooting, but no evidence was presented during the trial that Mehserle’s actions were influenced by prejudice.

Jurors must decide if Mehserle should be acquitted or found guilty of second-degree murder or a lesser offenses of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.

Police in Oakland have prepared for fallout from a verdict by erecting a command staging area near the city’s port. Officers received crowd control training and were working 12-hour shifts.

Several downtown businesses boarded up their storefronts. A group of activists said they would hold a rally on the night of the verdict outside City Hall.

The case was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of racial tensions and extensive publicity.

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