As of the printing of this article there have been five days of testimony, stretching out over two weeks, at the preliminary hearing of Johannes Mehserle, the cop caught on video shooting Oscar Grant in the back as Grant lay on a train platform.
The fact that Mehserle faces murder charges at all is a very rare instance where the resistance of the masses -- from those on the train who dared to film police brutality and the killing as it occurred, and then, the subsequent protests and rebellion -- forced the system to charge a police officer with murder. Everyone needs to watch closely and continue to demand that this murderer be tried, and convicted.
In this preliminary hearing, the judge will decide whether the legal case against Mehserle will go forward as a murder case or on lesser charges – or whether the charges will be dropped entirely. This is an unusual preliminary hearing - in most preliminary hearings, the defendant's attorney does not call witnesses because that allows the prosecution to see the key elements of the defense' case. But in this case, the attorney for Mehserle is presenting a number of witnesses to make a legal argument that the charges should be reduced, or even dropped, as well as it is trying to influence public opinion.
But even in this unusual hearing, what has unfolded confirms what people have seen in the videos, that in the early hours of January 1, BART police dragged, pushed, hit, tackled, and pointed tasers at, young men, some of whom were being detained against a wall. And that one of these young men, 22 year-old Oscar Grant, in the space of a few violent minutes, was beaten and surrounded by cops, then suddenly pushed on his belly, and shot at close range by Mehserle.
The defense is trying to concoct a story that turns the truth upside down. Mehserle's lawyer has so far called four cops who were on the platform that night as witnesses. Their job is to convince the judge that Johannes Mehserle should not be charged with murder. The problem they face is that there were many people who were on the train who felt that they were witnessing police brutality and some of them had cameras, which they switched on to record the incident. So now, Mehserle's attorney must try to flip the script and say that it was the seven cops on the platform who were the victims of a "near riot" by young Black men. And that the hundreds of people on the train were accomplices, part of an angry mob that was "advancing" on the supposedly beleaguered cops, and that it was in this "chaos" that Johannes Mehserle had "motor-skill confusion" and mistakenly unholstered and fired his gun when he only meant to use a taser.
And Mehersle's attorneys are using the extended proceedings to feed their story to the mainstream media in an attempt to override the cold-blooded murder that millions of people saw on the videos. They want to instill in people the complete lie that the real problem on the BART platform that night was out-of-control Black youth, and that the beleaguered cops were doing the best they could.
Lies, lies, lies
Marysol Domenici, one of the seven cops on the platform that night, took the witness stand and claimed that she was never more scared in her life than during the minutes on that platform. She says she went to aid her partner who had lined up some people against a wall. She said she ran down the side of the long train, and that 30-40 people were "coming off the train" behind her, "advancing" on her, yelling things, as she ran.
On cross-examination this scenario was shown to be nothing but lies. The prosecutor played the video from the overhead BART surveillance cam. (Originally BART claimed they had no video of the platform that night, later they admitted they did, but claimed that it didn't "show anything.") What the video did show was Domenici as she went down the platform alongside the train, but although it showed the open doors of the long 19-car train, it didn't show a single person coming out of the train "advancing" on her.
Domenici, however, kept insisting that she was being accurate, that the situation was "similar to a riot" and that the noise, even as she first came on the platform, was loud. The prosecutor again played video of the beginning of the incident, before BART cop Tony Pirone started pulling people off the train: there was no one screaming, all that could be heard is people on the train talking and someone even giggling. The truth, which is shown and heard on video, is that the noise only became loud after the police started brutalizing the youth In fact, in one video one of the BART cops, Pirone is the only person you hear yelling or cursing, "Sit the f*ck down!"
Domenici claimed that the youth were "threatening" her and the other officers, that there were "so many threats." But the truth is these were cops on a rampage, within a system that criminalizes youth and Black youth in particular. What had really been the intolerable thing in her eyes, what clearly enraged her was the young men were questioning why they were being detained, and people on the BART train were yelling in protest of police brutality. She said Oscar "popped up" after Pirone "handled" Michael Greer. This was after Pirone had done what he called "a hair-pull takedown," when he dragged Greer off the train and slammed him to the floor by his hair. Domenici said that Oscar didn't like what was happening and kept saying "it's fucked up" and she told him several times, "just stay out of it."
Although her testimony was the opposite of what was on video, what did come across loud and clear was the mentality of the police on the platform. Domenici said she knew someone had been shot when she heard a "pop" and she smelled gunpowder after the shot. She didn't know who had been shot but she knew right away that it wasn't an officer because of the look on another officer's face. In other words, there was no sadness.
"I'm going to have to kill somebody."
She said that it was then she started thinking of having to shoot her own gun. She testified she said to herself, "Oh, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, if I have to, I'm going to have to kill somebody." The whole courtroom sat stunned, and the judge interrupted, "Who were you going to shoot first?" Domenici didn't answer but said instead, "They were coming at us. Everyone was coming off the train. I was thinking that if I have to go to lethal force I will go to lethal force. We needed more police presence. All I know is we needed mutual aid."
For all her claims of fear and danger she never called for backup, nor did she or any other cop on the platform press the emergency button on their radios. When asked how many officers she thought would have been needed for "officer safety," she said 100.
These statements reveal the cold logic of police-think. Domenici spelled this out even further near the end of her testimony. She spoke in a loud voice, flat-out blaming Oscar for his own death saying, "If they stayed sitting down nothing would have happened. They would have been cited and released." She said she "kept telling" Oscar to "stay out of it" but he didn't, that if he had "just sat down he would have been fine."
There was no "riot" and no chaos except what the police insitgated. But in their eyes it is not acceptable to even question what the police do, and Oscar deserved to be killed, simply because he protested his friends being brutalized. The district attorney asked Domenici if she had any regrets. "No." she said.
Right after the hearing, Oscar's mother Wanda Johnson spoke to the media as supporters of the struggle gathered around. She said that the testimony proved that Domenici and the others had "no regard for human life, my son's life. She testified that she was going to kill somebody!" She went on to say that the cops were protecting each other, as they continued to to lie on the witness stand and said, "I want the truth."
After the hearing even the normally blasé, and cynical mainstream journalists were taken aback by Domenici's lying, cold-blooded testimony and they compared notes to make sure they had gotten her words right when she stated that she was thinking of going for her gun. Yet the next day the news media overhwelmingly ran the cops' story: the SF Chronicle, the most widely read newspaper in the Bay Area, printed the headline: Mehserle's defense says Grant was resisting.
The hearing will end soon, and the judge does not have to announce his decision immediately, but he may take some time. He could rule that Johannes Mehserle will be charged with first degree murder, second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter or even involuntary manslaughter which carries a sentence of only 3-4 years in prison. He could even let Mehserle off without any charges.
As the court weighs whether or not to go forward with murder charges against Mehserle, or to reduce or drop the charges and let this murderer go free, the political actions of people matter a great deal. In most cases where the police murder a young Black man, the whole thing is swept under the rug, the youth is blamed for his own death, and the police get off. Mehserle would not have been charged with murder in the first place had it not been for the courageous struggle for justice waged up to now. In this closely watched case, where millions have been shocked by the police murder of Oscar Grant, where Oakland has been rocked by powerful protests, and where there remains deep outrage and anger, it makes a big difference – for the battle for justice for Oscar, and for the larger struggle to build a revolutionary movement – that people protest and speak out, both during this hearing, and when the judge announces his decision.
Update: Cop Who Murdered Oscar Grant Will Face Murder Trial
June 4, 2009: Today, the three-week long preliminary hearing of Johannes Mehserle, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cop who killed Oscar Grant, ended with the Judge's decision that Mehserle will go on trial for murder. To uphold the charge of murder at this stage, the judge had to rule both that there was enough evidence to show that Mehserle killed Grant, which no one denies, and that it was with "malice". Legally, "malice" means that the killing was intentional. The legal standard here is that there is sufficient evidence that Mehserle should go to trial for murder -- this is different from the higher standard that would be required to convict Mehserle in a trial, "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
Mehserle's lawyer's arguments, and the police witnesses the defense brought could not explain away the evidence in the videotapes that millions have seen, and other evidence and testimony in the case. The defense summarized their case at the end of the hearing: they maintained that the police were in fear for their lives from the people at the station, and that Johannes Mehserle thought he was deploying a taser. And they claim that this is why Mehserle said, "oh sh*t" after the murder.
The judge ruled that it is clear that Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant and that Oscar Grant was unarmed, and that there had been no evidence that showed that this was not an intentional shooting. After the hearing, family, friends and other protesters held a celebration of the judge's decision outside the courthouse. They held signs and spoke on bullhorns, as people in passing cars honked their horns and gave the fist out their windows. Some people went to the Fruitvale BART station, the scene of the crime, to hold a speakout. The judge's decision to hold a cop over for trial for murdering a young Black man is rare indeed under this system. And it does not at all mean that Mehserle will be convicted. That this has now reached the point where Mehserle is facing trial has happened because of the people's actions all the way through. The people on the train who saw the police brutality and turned on their cell phones to record the cops' actions, and who made sure these videos got out to the world; the outcry and protests in the streets of people demanding justice; and the courageous testimony of witnesses against Mehserle in this hearing. This struggle must continue during the months, and the twists and turns, ahead.
Reiko Redmonde is part of a Revolution newspaper team in the Bay Area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org