Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Demonstrators in Oakland, Calif., protest the New Year's Day shooting death of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle, who was a transit officer at the time.
Demonstrators in Oakland, Calif., protest the New Year's Day shooting death of Oscar Grant by Johannes Mehserle, who was a transit officer at the time. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
New home video has surfaced in the New Year's Day shooting death of an unarmed African-American man on a Bay Area Rapid Transit platform in Oakland, Calif. It shows what appears to be an unprovoked attack by BART police.
Minutes before Oscar Grant, 22, was killed by then-BART officer Johannes Mehserle, he was assaulted by another BART officer, the video suggests. Mehserle, who resigned from the force, has been charged with murder.
Video Sparks Public Outrage
Several BART passengers took video footage of the fatal incident, and it spread widely on the Internet. The previously unseen video footage was recorded by an anonymous passenger and originally aired on local KTVU-TV.
It shows an unidentified BART officer approaching a small group of young black men detained by the police. The officer punches one of the men in the face; he appears to be Grant.
The officer who threw the punch is under investigation. He has not been officially identified, and he has not been charged with any offense.
Peter Keane, who teaches at Golden Gate Law School in San Francisco, says the punch appears to be unprovoked.
"It shows another officer making a brutal physical attack upon Oscar Grant before the shooting and actually precipitating the events that happen," Keane says.
In another video picking up the action moments later, Grant is lying face down when Mehserle shoots him in the back.
That shocking image helped incite a riot in downtown Oakland a week after the shooting. A second demonstration was mostly peaceful.
But outrage over Grant's death wasn't confined to the street. Some elected officials demanded that Mehserle, a two-year veteran, face criminal charges. District Attorney Tom Orloff acknowledged the public pressure when he charged officer Mehserle with murder Jan. 13.
"The videos are very powerful on what act was committed," Orloff says. "The issue is likely to be what was the mental state at the time that act was committed."
The videos of that night remind many people here of the 1991 Rodney King beating by four Los Angeles police officers.
That incident also was caught on tape, but the officers involved were acquitted, setting the stage for violent riots a year later. In Oakland, the videos seem to be the driving force behind Mehserle's arrest.
The Court Of Public Opinion
Lawyer Steve Meister, who has represented cops in trouble, says Oakland authorities caved in to public pressure.
"This whole case, the way the DA has proceeded, the way the civic leadership has proceeded, and the way the civic activists and the citizens have proceeded — the whole thing strikes me as a politically correct lynch mob," Meister says.
He says the BART videos don't tell viewers what was going on in the officers' minds.
"We don't know what they had seen and experienced and what information they were operating under before the tape started rolling," Meister says.
That's important, because California law defines first-degree murder as a deliberate and premeditated killing.
If the state can't prove that Mehserle intended to kill Grant, it might convince the jury that this was a case of manslaughter, says Kara Dansky, executive director of Stanford University's Criminal Justice Center.
"That's why mental state is key, because all of this hinges on what the state can prove with respect to what was going on in Officer Mehserle's mind," says Dansky.
But no one knows what Mehserle was thinking, because the officer quit the force before being questioned by department investigators.
John Burris is the Oakland attorney representing Grant's family. Whether Mehserle committed murder or manslaughter, he says the real question is this: Will he be held accountable?
"You kill someone accidentally, you kill someone negligently, you kill someone intentionally, you kill someone with deliberation — there's a price to pay," says Burris. "And it's important for the community to understand that when a police officer engages in that kind of conduct that it's not whitewashed and that he likewise has to pay a price."