The most anticipated witness in the Oscar Grant trial finally took the stand yesterday afternoon. It was 2:35pm, and court had just been called back into session after an afternoon break. Defense attorney Michael Rains got up from his chair, walked toward the podium and announced: “Johannes Mehserle.” The courtroom went silent and Mehserle, who has not spoken publicly since being charged with murder for shooting and killing Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, stood and took the witness stand.
The 6’4” former BART cop folded his large frame into the witness box, and faced Rains calmly. And all of a sudden, Mehserle–the anonymous symbol of cop brutality–became Johannes Mehserle, the sympathetic, imperfect human being a jury can understand.
Mehserle is a father and an older brother. He’s got a girlfriend and a son who’s a year and a half old. Mehserle was born in Germany. He was voted most huggable in high school, and became interested in police work because “it was different than what I’d done before, customer service mostly,” he said.
Mehserle, who appears fit and fairly athletic in video evidence from that night, is pudgier now. He’s a little bowlegged, and his suit jackets squeeze in the underarms. He’s got a kind voice, a soft, even polite demeanor, and a dimple on the right cheek of his boyish face.
The performance was striking, not least of all because up until today, the defense had successfully made sure this trial barely even referenced the defendant. In two weeks of court, every second of that night has been dissected. We know all the key players involved, their state of minds, their criminal records and personal biases. Both sides vilified Tony Pirone–and for good cause–the ex-BART cop who can be seen on video repeatedly beating Oscar Grant and his friends. But scant testimony from either side ever referred to Mehserle.
The defense set out to establish three things during Mehserle’s testimony and it’s safe to say they accomplished all three of them.
First, Mehserle distanced himself from Pirone right away. Pirone has emerged as the true villain of the night, and when he took the stand last week, his unapologetic and testy tone proved he’s probably proud of his reputation. Even though Pirone called himself a “big brother” to Mehserle during a preliminary hearing for the trial, Mehserle rejected that label yesterday.
“We had a professional relationship. He reminded me of my drill instructors in the academy,” Mehserle said. “He was hard nosed. It wasn’t unusual for him to be in yelling matches with someone. He was aggressive. But he was always on the radio, constantly working. That was more his style. I’d say I was more the opposite of him. We were just two different people.”
Second, Rains established that Mehserle was a rookie, a kid cop fresh out of school eager to learn and improve his skills, but with insufficient training to make an informed decision that night. Rains got Mehserle to criticize the department’s six-hour Taser training as inadequate. Mehserle was able to bring his gun home and was encouraged by his instructors to practice holstering and unholstering the firearm so he’d get the movements ingrained in his muscle memory. But he wasn’t allowed to bring his Taser home for similar training, and was never given the chance to practice using his Taser outside of his work shifts. According to Mehserle, he was never told by his instructors that there was the chance of confusing his Taser for his gun.
He couldn’t remember having a discussion that his Taser could be used in lieu of his gun as a form of lethal force. The way BART training officers introduced it, the Taser was “just another tool in [his] duty belt.” He’d drawn it in the line of duty only once before. Mehserle pulled it out to intimidate two people who ran out of a liquor store in San Leandro after committing an armed robbery, but he never shot it.
Mehserle said that night on the BART platform the anger Oscar Grant and his friends felt was directed at Pirone, and not at him. And judging from the videos, it’s a fairly believable idea. Mehserle plays a minor role in the detainment and arrest of Oscar Grant and his friends–until he shoots Grant, that is.
“I remember Mr. Grant and Mr. Bryson being upset, yelling. They said, ‘Fuck that officer. Fuck him. I’m gonna sue him,’” Mehserle recalled. And Mehserle then pointed to himself, saying: “Me?” Mehserle recalled that Bryson and Grant said: “No, him,” pointing to Pirone. “Not you.”
Mehserle remained faultless, even in the eyes of the man he killed.
Finally, the defense successfully humanized the defendant. There were so many tender details Mehserle’s attorney Rains made sure the jury learned. Mehserle had never really shot a gun before he became a cop. “Maybe once,” Mehserle recalled, looking up toward the ceiling thoughtfully. “My dad took me to the shooting range, at about thirteen, and that was it.” He didn’t own any guns until he became a cop.
It was a smart strategy from the defense. We’ll see what the prosecution can whip up during cross-examination today, but yesterday’s performance fairly cemented the growing suspicion that Mehserle will not be convicted of murder.
The night he shot Grant, he didn’t really want to come into work. Not just because New Year’s Eve was an all hands on deck night and no one ever got it off, but because there was something else weighing on him. “Normally, I wouldn’t have minded it, but not so much that night,” Mehserle said. “You had some issues going on at home, with your girlfriend, right?” Rains asked. “Yeah, she was put on bed rest that night,” Mehserle offered. “But you went to work anyway,” Rains said.
And by the time he came home to his pregnant girlfriend the next day, Mehserle had killed Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed father who had a fiancée of his own, and a daughter named Tatiana.
Photo: AP/Cathleen Allison