the calm before the storm: Johannes Mehserle/ Oscar Grant trial

I wanted to talk just a moment about the Oscar Grant and Johannes Mehserle trial. For those who don’t live here in California, an incident took place at 2:00am on New Years Day, 2009. A police officer shot a man who then died from the wound. The shooting took place on a train platform. For those of you who have never seen one, these platforms have a rather large open area that is covered by a roof. If you have never been to a city with a train system or a subway, it is something to behold. There are automated machines like an ATM where you buy your tickets and then ride to where you need to go. Sometimes you will have to change trains, at a station, but it is never an issue. The local name for the train system is the Bay Area Rapid Transit or BART.

Back to the story: On New Years, tickets are always free so people do not feel the need to drink and drive. This makes for a packed train. Lots of people in a small compact train.

On this night, something happened on the train and a fight broke out that included 10-12 people. The train conductor phoned 911 and asked that police be at the next station to handle the situation. As the train pulled into the Fruitville station, a few police were there. The conductor stopped the train and pointed out some of the people involved in the fight. One of those people was Oscar Grant. A few more police arrive and they began to pull the fight suspects out of the train and line them up against a waist high wall on the opposite side of the platform from the train.

Some of these police had just been involved in another incident at another train station, where a young man was found carrying a concealed handgun. That man tried to run away from the police and jumped from the other train platform some 25 feet to the ground breaking bones in his legs. Needless to say, the officers involved with that incident were on edge. As these officers came onto the Fruitville platform, they had a train full of drunken partiers yelling and screaming on one side, a group of 6-10 individuals being pulled off the train for questioning on the other and the officers that had been there trying to sort things out. It was a hectic scene.

Johannes Mehserle was one of the police officers to arrive on the Fruitville Train station after the incident had begun, and he had just dealt with the fleeing suspect with the gun on the other train platform. Mehserle was highly stressed. Mehserle had joined the BART Police in March of 2007 so at the time of the incident, he had been on the job for only a year and a half.

Oscar Grant complied when he was told to sit against the waist high wall. He spoke with his girlfriend on his phone briefly as he sat against the waist high wall, and snapped this photo as Johannes Mehserle arrived at the scene.

From this photo you can see that Oscar is sitting down, looking up at Mehserle, with the train just behind the officer. Continuity note: on the lower left you can see a window on the train while on the lower right the opening is actually a door with passengers standing in it. Mehserle looks to his right, paying attention to the other officers and trying to assess the situation. Mehserle’s shoulders are uptight, his head is low and his mouth is open all showing classic signs of stress, concentration and discomfort. His left hand is pulling out a set of hand cuffs, while his right hand (and this is the important part) holds the bright yellow Tazer gun. He has the weapon in his hand, drawn completely from its holster.

Another officer named Tony Pirone cuffs the man beside Oscar Grant. witnessing this incident, 6-8 people on the train begin to film the incident with their digital cameras and cell phones.

Seconds after Oscar takes this photo, Mehserle is ordered to assist in placing all of the men seated against the wall under arrest. Oscar raises his hands and begins to stand in protest to being arrested. Mehserle holsters the Tazer, steps to his right (the left of this photo) and forcibly pushes Oscar face down on the ground. A slight struggle ensues where Oscar reportedly has his hands beneath himself, preventing Mehserle from cuffing him. Officer Tony Pirone steps in to assist and put his knee on the back of Oscar Grants neck, forcing Oscars face into the concrete. At this point, Pirone yells a racial slur. “Bitch ass (n-word)” Mehserle continues to struggle to cuff Oscar Grants hands. Oscar says “I quit. I surrender.”

Mehserle says out loud: “Fuck this” stands, begins to draw his service pistol, it sticks in its holster and after three tries at drawing the firearm, Mehserle looks at the holster with his eyes, corrects the draw angle that was preventing him from extracting the weapon, draws it, removes the safety, and shoots Oscar Grant in the back. After a second Mehserle put his hand to his own face and states “Oh shit, I shot him.”

Mehserle defends his actions by stating that he confused his Tazer for his service pistol.

This video contains two different angles from the train. You can clearly make out where Mehserle struggles to unholster his service pistol, turns his head, looks at the holster, and draws the pistol anyway.

At about 2.53 of the following video an officer steps into view holstering his baton. In the background you can clearly see Mehserle drawing his service pistol. He struggles with it and actually has to pull on it four times before it will come out.

Oscar Grant died a few short hours later from this wound. Both Tony Pirone and Johannes Mehserle are Caucasian, and Oscar Grant is African American. I mention this because of the racial slur that was uttered during the struggle. I believe that both of the officers involved in this situation at very minimum had preexisting judgmental views about Oscar Grant because of the colour of his skin.

Oscar Grant was a convicted drug dealer. He had done time in prison. None of the officers knew this at the time. That night Oscar had a BAC of .02% which means he had a few drinks earlier in the evening. Oscar Grant was not an angel, but he did not deserve to die, shot in the back like some dog.

Neither of the officers are with the police department anymore.

Johannes Mehserle’s trial is in its final hours of closing arguments as I write this. I suspect that the jury will be given the holiday off, to return on Tuesday to deliberate Mehserle’s fate. In California the definition of Murder in the first degree requires “premeditation” which means it was a planned incident. Clearly this is not the case, however Murder in the second degree does not mention “premeditation.” The judge has instructed the jury that Murder 2, Manslaughter 1 & 2 and some lesser charges are what the jury will have to deliberate over.

The trial has taken place in Los Angeles because it was believed the former officer would not be able to get a fair trial here in Silicon Valley. Every night on the news they are saying how the local police are preparing for the verdict to be read. They don’t want roits, but they are prepairing for them.

The fact that these men were different races is unfortunate. In my heart I think it added fuel to the fire, but was not the cause of the incident. I think it was an inexperienced officer, dealing with stress beyond what he was capable of understanding, and a somewhat defiant young man who had become bitter toward the system. I believe that both men were fueled by their own prejudiced views of each other, however I fault Johannes Mehserle totally and without question for the death of Oscar Grant. It was Mehserle’s lack of ability to deal with the situation and his choice to escalate to violence that caused the death of a man who lay face down on the cold hard concrete. Mehserle knew which weapon he was drawing and he did it anyway. Mehserle finished the police academy at the top of is class which tells me he was highly trained. He had only been on the job for a year and a half and anyone who has gone from the academic world the private sector knows that in the real world, the shit hits the an in ways no school could ever teach. Mehserle was in over his head, but understand when I say that, I am insulting the man and the system together, and not trying to give any excuse or reason away his actions.

Johannes Mehserle executed Oscar Grant.

I fear the fate of the innocent if the jury doesn’t render a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree. I fear riots in the streets as a retaliation for anything less than a murder conviction. I believe that Johannes Mehserle deserves a murder conviction and has earned the right to sit in a cell for the rest of his life sharing his evenings with Oscar Grant.

God bless Oscar Grant, a misguided boy who had made some stupid choices in his life and God have mercy on Johannes Mehserle’s soul because in a fit of impatience and frustration, fueled by his own ignorant prejudices, he took away Oscar’s chance at redemption. God bless the families of both men because they are the ones who will continue to suffer.

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One Response to “the calm before the storm: Johannes Mehserle/ Oscar Grant trial”

  1. Today the Jury came back with guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Justice was not served here.

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