Demian Bulwa, San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 2009
OAKLAND -- Former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle must stand trial for murder in the New Year's Day shooting death of an unarmed man, an Alameda County judge ruled today.
After hearing seven days of testimony since May 18, Superior Court Judge C. Don Clay said prosecutors had presented ample evidence to show that Mehserle could be found guilty of murdering Oscar Grant, 22, at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland.
Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, sobbed loudly as Clay announced his decision, and other family members cried. Mehserle showed little reaction.
The case has drawn nationwide attention, in part because the shooting was filmed by BART passengers with digital cameras and played repeatedly on television and online. Mehserle, 27, is the first police officer in California in at least 15 years to be charged with an on-the-job murder.
BART police pulled Grant and several other young men off a Dublin-Pleasanton train about 2 a.m. Jan. 1 on suspicion of brawling onboard. Testimony showed that police were trying to arrest Grant for allegedly obstructing officers when Mehserle shot him.
One video showed Mehserle trying to pull Grant's hands behind his back as the Hayward resident lay face-down, then pulling out his pistol and shooting him.
Prosecutors said Mehserle had fired his pistol at Grant for no good reason. The defense said the officer had meant to shock the supermarket worker with a Taser stun gun but had accidentally fired his pistol instead, and that at most the case was manslaughter.
"This is not a murder because there is no malice, and there's no malice because Mr. Mehserle didn't intend to use his firearm," defense attorney Michael Rains told the judge.
However, in announcing his decision, Clay said, "There is no doubt in my mind that Mr. Mehserle intended to shoot Oscar Grant with a gun and not a Taser."
Clay heard from numerous witnesses during the preliminary hearing, including passengers who captured parts of the incident on cameras and other BART police officers who responded to the scene.
However, Mehserle himself did not testify. Clay said that without hearing from the former officer, he had no way to know what Mehserle may have been thinking when he pulled the trigger.
The outcry over Grant's death had racial overtones, with some African American community leaders saying that the shooting was part of a larger problem of police brutality against young men of color. Mehserle is white; Grant was black.
The shooting prompted several protests, including one Jan. 7 in downtown Oakland in which crowds smashed storefronts and set several cars ablaze. For the preliminary hearing, Alameda County sheriff's deputies maintained a visible presence at the courthouse.
Protesters ringed the building for the duration of the hearing. Many held signs that read, "We are Oscar Grant," and used bullhorns.
Oakland police joined deputies today to keep the peace outside the courthouse.
Mehserle resigned after the shooting and is now free on $3 million bail. He will return to court June 18 to be arraigned.
E-mail Demian Bulwa at email@example.com.