LOS ANGELES — Two different portraits of a white transit officer accused of killing an unarmed black man at an Oakland train platform emerged Thursday at the start of a trial tinged with racial overtures that will likely delve into use of force tactics by law enforcement.
The case, which was moved to Los Angeles, is being watched closely by the Oakland community, where racial tensions overflowed into violence following the 2009 New Year's Day shooting and is somewhat reminiscent of the fallout from the Rodney King beating that eventually resulted in the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in 1992.
Deputy District Attorney Dave Stein said in his opening statements that the decisions made by ex-Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle were fueled by misguided emotions as he arrived to a chaotic scene where Oscar Grant, 22, and his friends were being detained by fellow officers.
Mehserle, 28, has pleaded not guilty to murder for pulling out his .40-caliber gun and fatally shooting Grant in the back while he was on the ground.
"The shooting death of Mr. Grant was the result of emotions taking over for discipline," Stein said during his opening statement. "This was a result of aggression taking over judgment and training. For that, the defendant must be held responsible."
Defense attorney Michael Rains has long contended his client accidentally pulled out a handgun instead of his stun gun. Rains disputed Stein's account that Mehserle wasn't calm and collected in the moments before the shooting.
"He had no beef with Mr. Grant," Rains told the eight-woman, four-man jury. "There was no reason for him to be angry at Mr. Grant."
Both attorneys used video clips taken by several bystanders to recount how the shooting occurred. In one snippet, Stein noted that Mehserle looked down at his holster before pulling his gun. Mehserle would have had to reach for his Taser gun across his body on the left side to pull that weapon.
"Was the defendant confused?" Stein asked. "Look where he's looking? He's looking at what he's doing."
The prosecutor also said that Mehserle told another officer "I thought he was going for a gun" as more evidence showing Mehserle's intent to use his firearm.
Stein said Mehserle lost sight of his obligation as an officer and the result was "chaos, distrust and disorder."
"He was no longer acting out of duty to protect and serve," Stein said.
Rains countered that there already was a commotion by the time Mehserle responded to a fight that purportedly included Grant and his friends aboard the train. Rains claims Grant hit BART officer Tony Pirone, who has been described by some witnesses as the most aggressive officer prior to the shooting. Pirone, who does not face criminal charges and is no longer a transit officer, also is heard on one of the tapes using a racial epithet.
Rains added that Mehserle tried to subdue Grant for 12 seconds and that he and Pirone yelled at Grant to "give us your hands." Rains said his client noticed Grant's hands weren't coming out from underneath his stomach.
Rains maintains that Mehserle always intended to pull out his stun gun, pointing out to jurors on one of the videotapes that his client's thumb was in an upward position, as if to flick a switch activating the stun gun charge.
"Mr. Mehserle is getting ready to fire his Taser, believing he was going to incapacitate Mr. Grant," Rains said.
Also proving Mehserle mistook his gun for a Taser was his visible reaction after the shooting, putting his hands to his head in apparent disbelief, the lawyer said.
"The weight of his mistake just crushed down on him," Rains said as jurors watched the video.
Besides the video clips, which Stein said "would go a long way in explaining what happened," the prosecutor also showed for the first time a photo taken by Grant before he was shot. It is of Mehserle with his stun gun out near his right waistband. He is looking to his right and not at Grant.
Stein said Grant spoke with his girlfriend right before the photo was taken and said, "They are beating me for no reason. I gotta go."
Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, said outside of court – surrounded by supporters waving flyers bearing her son's photo – that she was moved by the image shown in the courtroom.
Grant was "letting me know, 'Mamma I wasn't doing anything,'" said Johnson, who led a prayer with friends and family in the courtroom before the proceedings began. "That was what was heartbreaking, that he's still speaking to me."
None of Mehserle's family was in court, according to a court spokesman. The defendant, wearing a gray suit and yellow tie, occasionally looked at the video as it was playing but mostly directed his gaze downward or straight ahead.
Two of the prosecution's first witnesses were a pair of women who shot separate video of what happened on the train platform.
Margarita Carazo said she saw Pirone pull Grant from the train and push him against a concrete wall. Stein played eight clips she took that included the shooting. In the background, you can hear a man on the train repeatedly say "That's (expletive) up" as the events unfolded. Carazo eventually gave the video to an attorney representing Grant's family.
"It was the right thing to do. What I saw I thought was wrong," she said.
The trial is expected to last about a month.