From: Contra Costa Times
By Malaika Fraley Oakland Tribune 7/1/14
SAN FRANCISCO — A federal civil jury on Tuesday ruled that former BART officer Johannes Mehserle’s fatal shooting of Oscar Grant III at the Fruitvale BART station in 2009 was accidental and denied monetary damages to the slain Hayward man’s incarcerated father.
“This was a tragic accident, and that’s what the jury found today,” said Mehserle’s attorney Michael Rains. “I think this is going to close the chapter involving Johannes Mehserle, Oscar Grant and what happened on that platform on Jan. 1, 2009.”
The jury’s ruling, reached after less than five hours of deliberation, echoed the far more emotional criminal trial in 2010 in which Mehserle faced murder charges but ultimately was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
In addition to denying the claims of Grant’s father, Oscar Grant Jr., the civil jury on Tuesday also ruled in favor of BART officer Marysol Domenici, accused by Grant III’s best friend Johntue Caldwell of using excessive force against him immediately after Grant III was shot. The case against Domenici was brought by Caldwell’s mother Zeporia Smith, who began championing her son’s case after he was fatally shot at a Hayward gas station in 2011.
Nearly $3 million in settlements already have been paid out to Grant III’s mother, girlfriend, daughter, and friends who were detained alongside him on the BART platform early New Year’s Day, 2009. Grant Jr. and Caldwell’s lawsuits were the only ones related to the high-profile killing to reach a civil jury.
Mehserle, 32, served about a year in jail for shooting an unarmed Grant III, 22, in the back while he and Officer Anthony Prione struggled to handcuff him. Grant and several friends were detained during an investigation of reports on a fight on a BART train. The struggle and subsequent shooting were recorded on cellphones by outraged spectators and prompted months of protests before inspiring the Hollywood film, “Fruitvale Station.”
The Los Angeles jury that acquitted Mehserle of murder and convicted him of involuntary manslaughter found that the former officer did not act maliciously and the shooting was accidental. Rains, Mehserle’s attorney for both the criminal and civil trials, said Tuesday’s verdict was in line with the criminal jury’s opinion.
Mehserle testified in both trials that he intended to tase Grant III, not shoot him, but pulled the wrong weapon.
Grant Jr.’s attorney, Waukeen McCoy, had argued there was evidence that Mehserle intended to shoot Grant III. In the immediate aftermath, McCoy said, Mehserle told people that he thought Grant III was going for a gun and he didn’t say that it was an accidental shooting.
While Mehserle’s actions were under scrutiny at the civil trial, so was the relationship between Grant Jr., 50, and his only child. The elder Grant has been in prison for a 1985 Oakland murder since before his son was born, and it proved an uphill battle to prove to the jury that his civil rights were violated by the loss of a deep familial relationship.
Despite Grant Jr.’s testimony that he and his son developed a relationship through prison visits, calls and letters over the years, the jury sided with Rains that the relationship was limited by the father’s incarceration.
Rains argued that Grant Jr. exaggerated the amount of contact he had with his son, and reminded the jury of all the questions the father couldn’t answer about his son during cross-examination.
“There’s a lot of African-American men in jail who have a bond with their family, who work to keep that bond. I think this case put fathers who are incarcerated on trial for their relationships with their families. That should not be an issue at all,” McCoy said.
“(Grant III and his father) had a deep-rooted, committed relationship and (Grant III’s) mom worked really hard to make sure they had that bond,” McCoy said. “I know (Grant Jr.’s) disappointed and feels like no one is going to tell him that he didn’t have a relationship with his son because he knows he did.”
Caldwell, who is buried beside Grant III in the Hayward Hills, testified in a video deposition recorded before his death that after Grant III was shot, Officer Domenici dragged him across platform, threatened him with a Taser pressed to his face, and then shoved him on a departing train.
Domenici was fired after the shooting but won her job back through arbitration. Her attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, argued that Caldwell lied, and that any such force by her client would have been caught by one of the many cameras recording that early morning.
Smith said after Tuesday’s verdict, jurors hugged her and told her that they believed her son’s account but could not decide in his favor without video evidence. She said she was grateful to Judge Edward Chen for giving her son a voice, despite the case’s outcome.
“I was trying to stand up for my son, he never had a chance to tell his story,” Smith said. “What happened that night was wrong, and I was trying to get something for his two sons for their futures.”