A jury panel was selected in Los Angeles today in the trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, who is accused of murdering unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III last year, according to a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Eight women and four men will serve on the panel, the spokeswoman said, but she declined to disclose the racial makeup of the jury. She said six alternates were also chosen: five women and one man.
Mehserle’s lawyer has admitted Mehserle shot and killed Grant, a 22-year-old Hayward man, on a platform of the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland shortly after 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2009.
But attorney Michael Rains claims the shooting was accidental because Mehserle meant to use his Taser stun gun on Grant and fired his gun by mistake. The shooting happened while Mehserle and several other officers were responding to a fight on a train.
Today was the only day potential jurors were questioned for the high-profile trial. Potential jurors reported to court last Wednesday but went home after spending only a short period of time filling out questionnaires.
Hearings on several remaining pretrial motions will be held Wednesday, and opening statements will be presented Thursday morning.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson ruled in October that Mehserle’s trial should be moved out of the county because the extensive publicity the case had received jeopardized his chances of getting a fair trial locally.
In November, Jacobson selected Los Angeles County as the new venue, and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George chose Judge Robert Perry to preside over the case.
One issue that will be debated Wednesday is a motion by Rains to exclude the testimony of Sophina Mesa, Grant’s girlfriend and the mother of their 5-year-old daughter.
Rains said Mesa’s testimony is similar to the testimony of other witnesses and he thinks the main reason the prosecution wants to call her as a witness is “simply to remind the jurors that Grant was a father of a small child at the time of his death.”
Rains said there would be “unnecessary and undue prejudice resulting from her appearance.”
But prosecutor David Stein said in court papers that Mesa’s testimony is “highly relevant” because she was with him that evening and spoke to him by cell phone after he was detained but shortly before he was shot.
Rains said that if Mesa were allowed to testify, he would ask her about her statement in a civil deposition that when the train arrived at the Fruitvale station, she told Grant to stay on the train and not go on the platform.
“She did so because she knew Grant was on parole, that he was subject to arrest due to the fight, that she knew police had been summoned to the Fruitvale station,” Rains said. “Thus she was concerned that he would be arrested and returned to state prison.”
Another issue that will be debated on Wednesday is Rains’ motion to prevent the jury from hearing that another BART officer, Tony Pirone, used a racial slur during a verbal exchange with Grant shortly before the shooting.
Rains said admitting Pirone’s statement would be prejudicial to Mehserle and there’s no evidence Mehserle heard any of the words exchanged between Grant and Pirone.
He said that although Pirone and Mehserle are white and Grant was black, “This case is not about race” and Mehserle hasn’t been charged with a hate crime.
“There is no evidence (Mehserle) expressed any racist statements or acted out of some racist purpose,” Rains said.
A third issue that will be discussed on Wednesday is a motion by Rains to exclude the prosecution’s synchronized video of the shooting on the ground that it is flawed and will confuse the jury.