A former BART police officer wept silently as he testified at a civil trial in federal court in San Francisco today about his fatal shooting of an unarmed man at a BART station in Oakland in 2009.
Johannes Mehserle, 33, told a federal jury that he had intended to draw a Taser stun gun but instead accidentally drew his service revolver when he shot and killed 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, of Hayward, at the Fruitvale BART station shortly after 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2009.
“I didn’t intend to shoot him,” Mehserle said under questioning from Waukeen McCoy, a lawyer for Grant’s father, Oscar Grant Jr.
Mehserle testified today in the trial of a civil rights lawsuit in which Grant’s father is seeking unspecified compensation for the loss of his familial relationship with his son.
Mehserle said he intended to stun Grant, who was on the ground of the platform, because Grant dug into his pocket for what Mehserle feared might be a gun while Mehserle was trying to handcuff him. Merserle and other officers had gone to the station in response to a report of fighting on an arriving train.
Mehserle’s claim that the shooting was accidental was similar to his testimony in his criminal trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court four years ago.
In that trial, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison. He was released in 2011 after receiving credits that reduce his time served.
The trial was moved to Los Angeles because of intense publicity in Alameda County. Cell phone videos of the shooting taken by bystanders at the station were circulated on the Internet and the incident prompted riots in Oakland.
In today’s testimony, Mehserle began to shed silent tears during cross-examination questioning by his defense attorney, Michael Rains, as he described his realization that he had shot Grant.
“I saw the bullet hole. I knew he had been shot,” Mehserle said.
“I remember not understanding how this could have happened. I felt terrible for Mr. Grant. I felt sick,” he said.
Under other questions from Rains, Mehserle said he had practiced drawing his revolver or replica from his holster “thousands of times” during his training at the Napa Valley Police Academy in 2006 and then at BART after being hired in 2007.
The purpose, Mehserle said, was to acquire so-called “muscle memory” so that the procedure could be automatic when needed in emergency situations.
But Mehserle said he received only six or eight hours of training in the use of a Taser and practiced pulling the weapon out of his holster only about 10 times during a BART training session in early December 2008, about a month before the Grant shooting.
During redirect questioning, McCoy asked why, given Mehserle’s extensive practice with drawing guns, “you couldn’t tell the difference between a gun and a Taser.”
Mehserle had no explanation.
“I practiced with my guns thousands of times. I’m not sure how it happened,” the former officer said.
McCoy also asked why Mehserle was not alerted by failing to see the distinctive red dot of a Taser beam on Grant’s back before he pulled the trigger.
“I had no time. As soon as my arm extended then I thought the Taser had fired,” Mehserle said.
The trial in the court of U.S. District Judge Edward Chen is the last of several civil rights lawsuits against Mehserle to be resolved.
In other cases, BART agreed to settlements of $1.5 million with Grant’s young daughter; $1.3 million with his mother, Wanda Johnson; and $175,000 with five friends of Grant’s who were detained at the station.
The current trial also includes a related lawsuit in which the estate of another friend, Johntue Caldwell, who was killed in an unrelated shooting in 2011, is suing BART officer Marysol Domenici for allegedly using excessive force in threatening him with a Taser.
BART, former BART Police Chief Gary Gee and several other officers were dismissed as defendants from the lawsuits at various times.
Grant’s father has been in prison on a first-degree murder conviction since before his son was born. But he has contended in court filings that he had a relationship with his son through visits, letters and phone calls and had hoped to expand the relationship after his expected release from prison within about two years.
He has been attending the trial under the guard of two state correctional officers.
The trial is expected to last about two more weeks.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News