By Thandisizwe Chimurenga
Special to TheBlackHour.com
Testimony in the trial of former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle concluded Friday with the appearances of former officers Marysol Domenici and Anthony Pirone.
Both officers were fired by BART last spring based on recommendations from a private firm that investigated the shooting.
Domenici changed her testimony from earlier reports, and video evidence appeared to contradict some of her recollections. Pirone said there were many things he did not recall about that morning. A witness for the prosecution who is trained in non-lethal police tactics may have given the defense a boost when he shared a story about unwittingly pulling his gun on a suspect.
Mehserle is charged with murder in the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting death of an unarmed and prone Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale BART platform in Oakland, Calif.
Mehserle resigned from his job in January 2009 on the day he was due to speak with BART investigators regarding the shooting.
Pirone was the first officer to arrive on the station platform on Jan. 1, 2009, and some witnesses said it was his aggression that led to Grant’s shooting by Mehserle. Domenici was the second officer on the scene. Her presence was requested by Pirone to help detain a group of Grant’s friends as they were leaving a south-bound train.
Domenici’s testimony, which began Thursday afternoon, was confusing and complicated as she answered many of the questions posed by Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Stein. Judge Robert Perry interjected on more than one occasion, saying “That’s not what he’s asking.”
Stein suggested in court that Domenici exaggerated the danger on the Fruitvale platform to justify her fellow officers' actions and Grant’s shooting.
In preliminary hearings last year, Domenici testified she feared for her safety when she arrived on the platform because “hundreds of people” were coming toward her as doors opened on the train. During this week’s testimony, she said it was actually “40 to 50” people. When Stein showed video from a BART surveillance camera of Domenici arriving on the nearly empty platform, Domenici said the camera “did not show everything.”
Videos also showed Domenici looking away from the area where Grant was shot. When asked by Stein why she did not take out her weapon when she heard the gunshot, she said it was because of the expression on her fellow officers’ faces.
Pirone, dressed similarly to Mehserle in a light grey business suit and yellow tie, appeared calm and cooperative on the witness stand.
Pirone was pulling Michael Greer off the train when, witnesses stated in court, he threw the young man into a concrete wall and then pushed him to the ground and handcuffed him. Pirone said he “nudged him towards the wall. Greer put his hands on the wall, pushed himself back and spun around, took a fighting position, clenched his fists, left foot in front of the right, like a boxer …” Saying he “didn’t want to get hit,” Pirone grabbed Greer by his dreadlocks and pulled him over his leg and onto the ground.
Pirone at many points said he did not remember many details of that morning. At other points, he seemed to remember things quite vividly. He denied walking over to and striking Grant, which was graphicly depicted in one of the videos played in court. He said he did "not remember that whole block of time” from walking over to Grant until when Mehserle showed up.
Pirone did remember Grant trying to “wiggle” his head out from under his knee. But he denied it when Stein asked, “Did you ever hear Oscar Grant say he couldn’t breathe?”
There was some discussion of what Pirone remembered about a conversation surrounding the use of a racial slur.
Pirone, who had threatened repeatedly to Tase the young men that morning, stated Grant told him, “I’ve got a 4-year-old daughter. I respect the police.” Upon hearing this, Pirone said he took it as a sign of a commonality between the two and thought that “we could now have a dialogue like adults.” Seizing on the commonality, he says he asked Grant, “What would your daughter think” about the way he is acting now. That’s when he says that Grant called him a “bitch ass n—–.”
In the video played in court, Pirone is heard yelling the slur at Grant twice, at which point Mehserle begins to slam Grant down.
At this point, Pirone says he heard Mehserle say “Tony, Tony, get up, get back, I’m going to Tase him …”. Pirone then stated on the stand that he thought it was “odd” that Mehserle was telling him to get up because he (Pirone) had “control.”
After Grant was shot, Pirone says he thought Mehserle’s Taser had “malfunctioned” because he looked at Grant’s back “looking for the probes from the taser.” He says he then saw Mehserle holding his gun with a two-handed grip. Pirone then told Mehserle to handcuff Grant and said he remembered looking at Grant’s back and seeing the hole in his shirt; the round that had been fired from Mehserle’s gun was on the outside of the front of Grant’s shirt, looking silver and “mushroomed.”
At this point, Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, began weeping in the courtroom.
After Pirone radioed to get an ambulance he says that Mehserle stated to him, “Tony, I thought he was going for a gun.” Asked by Stein what he said in response, Pirone replied, “Yeah.”
Just prior to the testimony of the two former BART officers, the prosecution called Sean McCann as another expert witness in defensive tactics.
McCann, a former Berkeley, Calif., police officer who is certified by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, testified to the various less than lethal options available to most officers, including chemical agents and batons. He said part of an officer’s training usually includes objectivity and patience.
“If emotions are not held in check, they can affect an officer,” he said.
McCann recounted how, after an encounter with a suspect that included fighting in the street and a foot chase, McCann pushed a suspect against a wall with one hand and “noticed” he had his gun in the other hand pointed at the man’s head.
“I don’t know how I did that,” he said.
Rains took the opportunity to investigate this on re-direct, but Stein tried to emphasize that the two situations were almost polar opposites.
Stein tried to have McCann explain that he stopped his suspect after a high-adrenaline chase, and the man was closer to 6 feet tall and nearly 300 pounds. Oscar Grant, on the other hand, was not chased, and had a much smaller frame, 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 160 pounds.
By Thandisizwe Chimurenga