The defense attorney for former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle is considering calling prominent Oakland civil rights lawyer John Burris as a witness in Mehserle’s upcoming trial on charges that he murdered unarmed passenger Oscar Grant III, according to court documents. Mehserle, 28, who is free on $3 million bail, is charged in connection with the shooting death of Grant on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland shortly after 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2009, after Mehserle and other officers responded to reports that there was a fight on a train. Mehserle’s lawyer, Michael Rains, has admitted Mehserle shot and killed Grant but claims that the shooting was accidental because the former officer meant to use his Taser stun gun on Grant but fired his gun by mistake. Burris filed a $50 million wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit on March 2, 2009, on behalf of Grant’s family against BART, Mehserle and other transit agency police officers.
On March 18, a federal judge approved a $1.5 million settlement between BART and Grant’s 5-year-old daughter, Tatiana Grant. However, no settlement has been reached with Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson. In a recent filing in Los Angeles Superior Court, where jury selection for Mehserle’s trial is scheduled to start June 1, Rains said he’s considering calling Burris as a witness because Burris represents some of the people who were involved in the incident at the Fruitvale station, including Sophina Mesa, who’s Tatiana’s mother. In a declaration that’s an offer of proof to compel potential witnesses to appear in court, Rains said Burris also represents friends of Grant who were “percipient witnesses to the shooting.” Rains said, “Mr. Burris has previously held a press conference in which he indicated that the individuals he represents may be reluctant to give testimony which would ostensibly be helpful to Mr. Mehserle and harmful to Mr. Grant concerning many of the events which occurred because they have inherited ‘snitch’ jackets and that their lives are in danger if they give testimony helpful to Mr. Mehserle and harmful to Mr. Grant relating to the events of Jan. 1, 2009.” Rains said, “Mr. Burris may be called as a witness to get testimony concerning threats or intimidation which has occurred of these witnesses.” Burris, who has frequently commented on Mehserle’s case on television and at news conferences, couldn’t be reached for comment.Rains included 28 people, including Burris, on his list of potential witnesses. His list includes current BART Officer Jon Woffinden and former Officer Anthony Pirone, who was the first officer to arrive on the Fruitvale platform recently fired for the way he detained Grant and his friends. Woffinden and Pirone both testified at Mehserle’s preliminary hearing last year. But Rains’ list omits Marysol Domenici, another former officer who testified at the preliminary hearing. She was recently fired for the way she reported the incident, both in police reports and in her testimony at the court hearing.Pirone and Domenici are both appealing their dismissals. Rains’ list also includes Oakland police Sgt. Tony Jones, who was assigned to investigate the case seven days after the shooting. Rains said Jones may be called “to testify to investigative steps taken in the investigation, including as a possible impeachment witness to statements by others.” In addition, the defense list includes Alameda County District Attorney investigators Bob Conner and Bruce Brock, who are working on the case with prosecutor David Stein, and a San Leandro police officer who is expected to testify about a 2006 incident in which Grant, who had three felony convictions, allegedly resisted arrest. Stein’s witness list hasn’t been posted on the court’s website.Rains and Stein can’t comment on the case because of a court order barring them from talking to the news media. In October, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson should be moved out of the county because the large amount of publicity the case has received jeopardized his chances of getting a fair trial locally. In November, Jacobson selected Los Angeles County as the new venue and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George chose Judge Ronald Perry to preside over the case.
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