Prosecutors will be able to enter three contested pieces of evidence in the murder trial of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle, who fatally shot unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III in Oakland last year, a judge decided today.
Opening statements for the highly anticipated trial, which will include debate about whether or not Mehserle intentionally shot 22-year-old Grant on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station on Jan. 1, 2009, will be given in a Los Angeles courtroom on Thursday.
Several BART officers were responding that night to a fight on a train, and Mehserle’s defense attorney, Michael Rains, has said Mehserle was reaching for his Taster stun gun but grabbed his gun instead when he shot Grant, a Hayward resident.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry had previously issued several rulings in favor of Mehserle, including allowing Rains to present evidence of an October 2006 incident in San Leandro in which Grant, who had three felony convictions, allegedly resisted being arrested and was shot with a Taser stun gun as officers tried to handcuff him during a traffic stop.
In a victory for prosecutors today, Perry agreed to let the prosecution inform jurors of a racial slur used by another BART officer the night Grant was killed; call Grant’s girlfriend, who is the mother of his child, to the witness stand; and introduce a synchronized video as evidence.
Rains tried 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.
Perry, however, agreed with the prosecutor David Stein, who argued the slur “should be included as part of the complete picture of the scene on the BART platform when Mr. Grant was killed.”
Rains also sought 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.” He said this would result in prejudice against Mehserle.
Once again Perry ruled in favor of the prosecution, which claimed Mesa’s testimony is “highly relevant” because she was with him the evening he died and spoke to him by cell phone after he was detained but shortly before he was shot.
Perry also said Rains will not be allowed to ask Mesa about Grant’s probation or parole status, and he decided to include the prosecution’s synchronized video of the shooting on the ground.
The defense argued the footage is flawed and would confuse the jury, but Perry said he would allow its introduction.
Perry previously said he would also allow the defense to present its own synchronized video, which was put together by an expert hired by the defense.
Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn said it will be decided during the course of the trial whether Mehserle will face first-degree murder or second-degree murder charges.
The jury panel consists of eight women and four men. There also are six alternates: five women and one man.