Click photo to enlarge
Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, sheds a tear following the preliminary hearing May 18, 2009 of Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer charged in the killing of her son. (Karl Mondon/Staff)
Special Report
More

OAKLAND — Even though Oscar Grant III's family knew it was coming, the sound of former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle's gun firing made them jump in their courtroom seats Monday and sparked tears as they watched two videos of Grant being killed.

The videos were the most riveting pieces of evidence presented Monday during the first day of a likely two-week-long preliminary hearing for Mehserle, who is charged with murdering Grant at the Fruitvale BART station Jan. 1.

Both videos captured the sound of Mehserle's gun firing; one shows the 27-year-old officer leaning over a prone Grant while pointing an object at Grant's back.

The women who recorded the videos, Karina Vargas and Margarita Carazo, both said they thought the gunshot was the sound of a Taser, and did not know until the next day they had video of a man being killed by a police officer.

They began to record, both said, because they believed BART officers were acting too aggressively toward Grant and his friends, all of whom were pulled from a train at the Fruitvale station.

Grant never resisted arrest nor did he appear to act aggressively toward police, Vargas and Carazo testified.

Instead, the two women said, it was at least one BART officer, Anthony Pirone, who was the aggressor, yelling at passengers and throwing people against walls. In one video, Pirone was shown charging toward Grant, while Grant sat on the floor with his back against a wall.


Advertisement

Even though the BART train was filled to capacity with New Year's Eve revelers yelling and shouting, both women said the situation appeared to be under control until at least one BART officer, who appears to be Pirone, began acting aggressively toward Grant and his friends.

Pirone, the women said, charged at Grant, demanding the supermarket clerk get off the BART train. He then pushed the 22-year-old face first into a wall, the women testified.

"I heard an officer directing Oscar Grant and his friends to get (off the train). He was yelling at them, 'Get the (expletive) off the car. Get the (expletive) off the car,'"‰" Vargas said. "He was yelling at them; it was obvious he was angry."

Carazo said she began to record the events when she saw an officer grab Grant by the shoulders and throw him from the train.

"I thought it was wrong what the officer was doing. Oscar wasn't doing anything wrong; he wasn't fighting back or anything," Carazo said. "He didn't do anything, he was just standing there."

Eventually, both women testified and the videos showed BART police officers had Grant and his friends sit on the platform with their backs against a wall.

But as the officers surrounded Grant and his friends, other passengers began shouting at the police, the videos showed. The shouts became louder and more frequent after the videos show officers pushing on Grant and his friends.

Under questioning from Mehserle's attorney Michael Rains, Vargas admitted it felt like a riot could break out at any time.

"It definitely looked like at any point, they would start throwing things or even rioting," Vargas said of the crowd. "They were real angry."

It was at this point that Carazo's video shows Pirone and Mehserle standing over Grant with Mehserle using his right arm to search his own belt area. Moments later, a bang is heard followed by Mehserle looking "dumbfounded," Vargas said.

"I don't understand it to this day. "... It looked to me like (Grant) was cooperating," Vargas said. "It didn't appear to me that he was resisting arrest at all."

Vargas said she did not record the shooting because her attention was focused on another man standing next to her who had been tackled by a BART officer. While she taped officers struggling with that man, the gunshot was heard.

Meanwhile, Carazo filmed the entire shooting but didn't know she taped a killing until two days later.

"I didn't know what a gun or Taser sounds like," she said. "I thought it was a Taser."

The women were testifying in a courtroom that was guarded by at least eight sheriff's deputies as protesters outside chanted: "We are all Oscar Grant."

As the protesters chanted outside, the atmosphere inside the courtroom remained calm and orderly.

In addition to the two women, deputy district attorney David Stein also called to the stand a doctor who performed Grant's autopsy.

Stein must prove to Alameda County Superior Court Judge C. Don Clay that he has enough evidence in the case to bring Mehserle before a jury on charges of murder.

Stein is expected to take about two weeks working to prove he has enough evidence after which Clay will decide if the case should go forward.

Before testimony began Monday, Clay denied a request by Rains to remove District Attorney Tom Orloff's office from the case.

Rains claimed Orloff violated his client's rights because he ordered two Oakland police officers to try to interview Mehserle after he was arrested even though Orloff knew Mehserle had an attorney.

Clay said Orloff's actions did not prove a bias nor did it meet the requirements necessary for him to be taken off the case.