The attorney for the family of Oscar Grant, the train rider shot to death by a BART police officer Jan. 1, 2009, said Monday that he would fight an effort to put him on the witness stand at the officer’s upcoming trial.
John Burris’ inclusion on a list of potential witnesses submitted by defense lawyer Michael Rains sets up a clash between two natural foes – the Bay Area’s top litigator in police brutality cases and the region’s foremost defender of officers.
Burris is suing BART on behalf of several of Grant’s relatives and friends over the videotaped shooting at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland. Rains represents former Officer Johannes Mehserle, whose murder trial in Los Angeles County is scheduled to begin June 2.
Mehserle, 28, shot the unarmed Grant in the back while trying to handcuff him after a fight on a train. Rains says Mehserle meant to shock Grant, who was 22, with a Taser and accidentally fired his service pistol.
Rains said in a court motion that he may call Burris to ask him about “threats or intimidation” directed toward people who were with Grant when he was shot and whom Burris now represents.
Rains referred to a news conference Burris held at his Oakland office on Feb. 5, 2010. Burris said then that BART had endangered some of his clients as “snitches” by making public what they had said in civil depositions.
Burris “indicated that the individuals he represents may be reluctant to give testimony which would ostensibly be helpful to Mr. Mehserle,” Rains wrote. The defense attorney has said statements by Grant’s friends bolster the Taser story.
Burris said Monday that Grant’s friends would not be pressured to skew accounts that they have already given in depositions and to investigators. Those accounts, he said, do not necessarily support the Taser defense but are “consistent with police use of excessive force.”
Burris said he would soon file a motion in the Los Angeles County court where Mehserle is to be tried, asking Judge Robert Perry to remove him from the witness list or schedule an evidentiary hearing later this month to sort out the matter.
Burris called Rains’ move a ploy to try to silence him by covering him with the criminal case’s gag order. As a witness, Burris said, he might also be barred from viewing the trial, leaving him unable to advise Grant’s family about the proceedings.
“It’s ridiculous to claim I have evidence or testimony that will be helpful to the defense,” Burris said. “More importantly, my clients’ statements to me are protected by the client-attorney privilege.”
Also on the defense witness list are several BART officers and investigators; people who captured the shooting on video; a woman who witnessed the fight on the train that involved Grant; a parole agent who once supervised Grant; and experts on psychology, police training and video footage.
Absent is former BART Officer Marysol Domenici, who helped detain Grant and four of his friends before the shooting. Domenici, who is appealing her recent firing from BART, angered Grant’s family with some of her testimony at a preliminary hearing last year.
After the fatal shot was fired, she told an Alameda County judge, some train riders were so angry that she started thinking about using her gun.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, if I have to, I’m going to have to kill somebody,’ ” Domenici testified.