Former California Transit Officer Faces Trial For 2009 Shooting Opening statements begin Thursday in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a former transit police officer who is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed black man on New Year's Day 2009 in Oakland, Calif. The killing was captured on video and widely posted on the Internet.
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Ex-Cop Faces Trial In Racially Charged Murder Case

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Ex-Cop Faces Trial In Racially Charged Murder Case

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Ex-Cop Faces Trial In Racially Charged Murder Case

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DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

The trial begins today in Los Angels, because a judge ruled a fair trial in Oakland was impossible. NPR's Richard Gonzales has this report. And we warn listeners it contains audio of the shooting.

RICHARD GONZALES: There is no doubt that Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant. The jury will see several cell phone videos shot from different angles of the night Oscar Grant was killed on a crowded train platform in Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

GONZALES: The victim, Oscar Grant, was a 22-year-old supermarket worker and father. Days after his death, protesters rioted in downtown Oakland. At a far more peaceful prayer vigil last week, Grant was hailed as a martyr.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING AND GUNFIRE)

GONZALES: (Chanting) I am Oscar Grant. I am Oscar Grant.

GONZALES: Oscar Grant was also a parolee who had been arrested five times in his young life and had spent nearly two years in jail. Just before his death, he had been looking for help to change his life and went to talk with his uncle, Cephus Johnson.

CEPHUS JOHNSON: And his conversation centered around the fact that, you know, I - basically, I've made some bad choices. He talked about how much he loved his daughter and begins to take a look in the future about what he wanted to do for himself and his family. And I can say I believe he was more or less scared straight.

GONZALES: Darryl Stallworth, an Oakland defense attorney and former prosecutor who has been following the case, says the judge made the right call.

DARRYL STALLWORTH: And sometimes, in my experience, what the victim is doing or what the victim may have done in similar situations can help a jury sometimes understand why the defendant behaved in the way that he did.

GONZALES: But Mehserle's defense has to walk a fine line, too, because it does not want to appear to be putting the victim, Oscar Grant, on trial. What the defense will try to do is make the then-27-year-old Johannes Mehserle a sympathetic figure, says Stallworth.

STALLWORTH: We have to really understand that the jurors, for the most part, if you want to be real honest, are going to consider police officers sort of heroic.

GONZALES: Not a lot is known about Mehserle. He grew up in the Napa wine country and was reportedly an average student at three different high schools. After the Oscar Grant shooting, he refused to speak with BART investigators and resigned from his job.

STEPHEN MEISTER: We also don't know what exactly Officer Mehserle saw.

GIFFORD: Stephen Meister is a Los Angeles defense attorney.

MEISTER: When Oscar Grant was on his belly, on the ground, trying to get up, trying to avoid being handcuffed, we don't know if Officer Mehserle perceived the presence of a weapon. Before they were able to get him cuffed and thoroughly searched, Officer Mehserle did not know whether Oscar Grant was armed or not.

GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Oakland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AMOS: This is NPR News.

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