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California Justice Department will investigate Oscar Grant killing

Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man, was unarmed and pinned face down on a train station platform when he was shot and killed by a white police officer who said he mistook his gun for his Taser in 2009.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — More than 12 years after Oscar Grant was shot dead by a white police officer in Oakland, California, the state’s top law enforcement official is launching a new investigation into the 22-year-old’s death.

The announcement by California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office comes eight months after Alameda County’s top prosecutor decided not to press charges against one of two officers involved in Grant’s death.

Grant was lying face down on a platform at Oakland's Fruitvale station early on New Years Day 2009 when former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed him. Mehserle said he mistook his pistol for a Taser. A jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, and Mehserle served 11 months of a two-year sentence.

Last year, Grant’s family began pressuring Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to file charges against another former BART officer — Anthony Pirone — who was involved in the incident. On that day in 2009, Pirone pulled Grant off the train and pinned him down while Mehserle shot him in the back. Both officers were responding to reports of a fight on one of the train cars at the time.

O'Malley reopened the investigation into Grant’s death in October last year, but her office declined to press charges against Pirone in January. A review released by her office found no evidence that Pirone knew Merserle intended to kill Grant or that Pirone intended to assist in that killing.  

“While Pirone’s overly aggressive conduct contributed to the chaotic nature of what transpired on the Bart platform on January 1, 2009, he did not kill nor aid and abet the killing of Oscar Grant,” the 16-page report stated.

In a video message released in January, O’Malley said her office pursued several legal avenues to hold Pirone accountable but ultimately concluded it could not prove Pirone was guilty of murder or any other crime related to Grant's death beyond a reasonable doubt.

“We condemn Pirone’s conduct, but we cannot charge him with murder or any other crime,” O’Malley said.

In April, Oscar Grant’s family said they would organize a campaign to recall O’Malley as district attorney. Less than a month later, O’Malley announced she would not seek reelection in 2022. She has served as the county’s top prosecutor since 2009.

After her office declined to press charges, several people — including Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, the BART Board of Directors and The Justice 4 Oscar Grant Coalition — requested a review by the California Department of Justice.

Under Attorney General Bonta's direction, the California Justice Department has decided to independently review Pirone’s involvement in Grant’s death.

“Transparency is critical to building and maintaining trust between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Bonta said in a statement Tuesday. “The California Department of Justice is committed to conducting a thorough, fair, and independent review and will go where the facts lead.”

The final hours of Grant’s life leading up to his violent death were dramatized in the 2013 film “Fruitvale Station” starring Michael B. Jordan. Grant's death and a decision by a Los Angeles jury to convict Mehserle of the less severe crime of involuntary manslaughter set off a wave of protests in Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area. The trial had been moved to Los Angeles in response to a motion for a change in venue.

BART settled a civil lawsuit with Grant's mother and daughter in 2010 for $1.3 million and $1.5 million, respectively.

In 2019, BART debuted a mural honoring Grant at Fruitvale station along with new street signs designating a nearby, previously unnamed street "Oscar Grant III Way."

After Grant’s death, BART hired the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) to review its police department practices, training and protocols. The group made 53 recommendations on ways to improve police accountability. BART has since adopted a dual civilian oversight system, which includes an Office of the Independent Police Auditor that investigates reports of police misconduct and use of force. An 11-member Citizen Review Board reviews the auditor’s investigative findings and makes policy recommendations to BART’s board of directors.

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