Five friends of Oscar Grant III who were with him when he was shot and killed by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale station in Oakland early on New Year’s Day have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the agency.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Tuesday, alleges that BART police officers illegally arrested the five men and used excessive force against them in the highly publicized incident.
Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old Hayward man, was shot in the back by former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle as he was lying face down on the ground at the Fruitvale station after Mehserle and other officers responded to reports of a fight between two groups of young men on a train.
Mehserle, 27, who resigned a week after the shooting and is free on $3 million bail, is charged with murder in connection with the incident.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson is expected to rule soon on a motion by Mehserle’s attorney to move his trial away from the county because of the extensive pretrial publicity the case has received. His trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 2.
The new lawsuit was filed by Oakland attorney John Burris, who previously filed a $50 million suit on behalf of Grant’s mother and his girlfriend, who is the mother of his young daughter.
The plaintiffs in the new suit are Nigel Bryson, 19, his brother, Jackie Bryson, 21, Michael Greer, 22, Carlos Reyes, 21, and Fernando “June” Anicete, 20.
The suit is seeking unspecified damages from BART, General Manger Dorothy Dugger, Police Chief Gary Gee and five officers: Mehserle, Tony Pirone, Marysol Domenici, Jon Woffinden and Emery Knudtson.
Although a specific damage award wasn’t mentioned in the suit, Burris said it will be “a significant amount.”
BART spokesman Jim Allison said today that the transit agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit alleges that Grant’s five friends were wrongfully arrested and taken to the BART Police Department, where they were held unlawfully in handcuffs for five hours before they finally were released without being charged.
Burris said BART police claim that the men weren’t arrested, but he said “they were handcuffed and interrogated and they weren’t free to leave.”
Burris said the men “witnessed the shooting death of one of their best friends under circumstances that were not justified” yet still were detained for many hours.
He said he believes the violations alleged in the suit occurred were a product of a “dysfunctional” police department that did not have clear guidelines for discipline, supervision and the use of weapons.
Burris said he hopes that the new lawsuit, which has been assigned to Judge Claudia Wilken in federal court in Oakland, will be consolidated with the lawsuit on behalf of Grant’s family, which has been assigned to Judge Marilyn Patel in federal court in San Francisco.
Patel will hold a case management hearing on Monday, Burris said.