Opening statements began Thursday morning in Los Angeles in the highly anticipated murder trial of Johannes Mehserle, the former BART police officer who fatally shot unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III in Oakland Jan 1, 2009.
Even before court began there was a late development in the jury. Juror No. 1, who was a white female, was replaced by an Hispanic female. The jury has no African Americans.
Prosecutor David Stein showed the jury a series of videos, taking them through every step of the incident. He said the a fellow officer, Tony Pirone, leaned over toward Grant and shouted racial epithets twice. Stein said, "There's nothing like a racial slur to stir up any emotion."
He told the jury that Grant was not resisting arrest. "He was in the process of putting his hands behind his back offering them up to be handcuffed. What happened that night was not officers responding to a fight in a train. It was much more than that. The shooting death of Oscar Grant was a result if emotions taking over for discipline. Aggression taking over for judgment and training and for that thus defendant must be held responsible. And that is why at the end of this case I'm going to ask you to convict him of the murder of Oscar Grant," Stein told the jury.
Mehserle's attorney Michel Rains told the jury that Mehserle was trapped in a wretched prison of his own memory from what happened in a matter of seconds the night Grant died.
"It is a tragedy. This case chronicles the tragic. The unintended death if a young man who shouldn't have died, shouldn't have been shot," Rains said. But he added, "Evidence shows he was resisting, actively resisting, from the moment he went to the ground until the shot was fired."
On Wednesday, prosecutors revealed a key piece of evidence provided by the victim: a cell phone photo. The picture Grant snapped on his cell phone apparently shows Mehserle pointing his Taser at Grant moments before the fatal shot. Legal experts say the photograph could be a boost to Mehserle's defense because it shows he had intended to use a Taser that night. The crux of their case is that Mehserle accidentally pulled the trigger of his handgun instead of his Taser in the shot that killed Grant.
Rains said during opening statements, "He felt so comfortable with the relationship that he pulled out a cell phone and took a picture," speaking of Grant's snapshot.
Prosecutors will be able to enter the photo and other contested pieces of evidence in the trial, which was moved to Los Angeles because of intense media coverage and fears of protests sparked by racial tensions. News of the photo comes as a surprise to people following the case.
The case sparked riots in Oakland and has been a hot topic of racial discussion because Mehserle is white and Grant was black. The race discussion came up again recently when the jury was seated. Of the eight women and four men seated for the jury, seven of them are white, four are Latino and one is East Indian. There are no African-Americans on the alternate jury either.
Several BART officers were responding that night to a fight on a train, and Mehserle's defense attorney, Michael Rains, has said Mehserle was reaching for his Taser but grabbed his gun instead when he shot 22-year-old Grant, a Hayward resident.
The trial is expected to last about a month.
Law experts speculate that there are no black jurors on the case because of LA county's changing demographics.
Bay City News contributed to this report.