Civil Trial on Fatal BART Shooting Awaits Officers

     (CN) – A jury must hear civil claims against transit officers involved in the killing of a handcuffed young man on a Bay Area train platform, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant III in the back early on New Years Day 2009. Mehserle was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served about two years in state prison. The incident was witnessed and recorded by scores of people out late enjoying the holiday, drawing much protest and media attention.
     It began when BART officer Anthony Pirone drew his Taser on Grant and his friends, Nigel Bryson, Jack Bryson Jr., Carlos Reyes, Michael Greer and Fernando Anicete Jr., as they stood around talking at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, Calif.
     Pirone thought the men in the group matched descriptions he had been given earlier about people involved in a fight on one of the trains. Pirone later said that he brandished his Taser to “intimidate” the men.
     The situation quickly spun out of control after the Brysons and Reyes began to walk toward the station exit. Pirone yelled expletives at the men while calling for backup and told them to sit down.
     Soon Mehserle officer Marysol Domenici and others showed up. After yelling, “get the [expletive] off my train,” Pirone directed Grant to sit against a wall next to Reyes and the Brysons, according to the ruling.
     He then dragged a struggling Greer off the train, grabbed his hair and kicked his legs out from under him. When Jack Bryson stood up to protest, Grant got between him and Domenici in an effort to calm his friend. Pirone, who said that he saw Grant touch Domenici, punched Grant in the head and took him hard to the ground with his knee on his neck.
     Struggling as Pirone handcuffed him, Grant said he couldn’t breathe. Meanwhile, Mehserle drew his gun and told Pirone to get out of the way.
     “Puzzled by Mehserle’s request, Pirone stood, allowing onlookers who were recording the scene to see Grant’s hands resting visibly behind his back,” the ruling states.
     Mehserle pulled the trigger and shot Grant in the back. Grant said over and over again “You shot me,” while Mehserle said “Oh, [expletive], I shot him,” according to the ruling.
     Grant died a short time later at the hospital. The Brysons, Reyes, Greer and Anicete were arrested and held overnight, but were never charged with anything. The young men later filed unlawful arrest claims against the officers and others, while Grant’s father claimed that Mehserle, Pirone, and Domenici had violated his right to a familial relationship with his son.
     The officers moved for dismissal based on qualified immunity, but U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel mostly denied their motions in San Francisco.
     At oral arguments before a three-judge appellate panel in December 2012, attorney Michael Rains said Mehserle had thought he was firing a Taser at Grant.
     John Burris, who represents Grant’s father, said Mehserle had no reason to use a Taser on a man who was sitting on the floor, handcuffed and helpless, other than to cause harm.
     On Tuesday, the appellate panel agreed that the officers do not deserve immunity.
     “We agree largely with the District Court that the officers should stand trial for the constitutional violations of which they are accused,” Judge Mary Murguia wrote for the panel.
     “We are presented with the plaintiffs’ account of facts in which one officer, Pirone, responded to a call regarding a misdemeanor scrape on a train – which concluded before he arrived – by pulling a weapon on a group of men who were standing around talking,” Murguia added. “Pirone sought to intimidate the group, which he assumed may have been responsible for the fight. Pirone then sought out two of the men who walked away from him by pacing the platform and screaming profanities in his search for them. The men were all handcuffed and held overnight – but never charged with a crime – after another officer, Mehserle, shot and killed one among them.”
     The panel concluded, as did the District Court, that Pirone “had no lawful basis to detain the group initially.”
     In a slight stray from the lower court’s findings, the appellate panel said Mehserle is entitled to qualified immunity for the arrest of Anicete. The judges also called for more evidence on whether Mehserle is responsible for the detentions of Anicete, Reyes and Bryson.

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