Ex-transit officer testifies in California train shooting trial that he used intimidation
LOS ANGELES – LOS ANGELES (AP) — An unarmed black man was squirming on an Oakland train platform while being placed under arrest moments before he was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer last year, a fellow officer testified Friday.
Tony Pirone, who was fired from the transit agency in April, recounted how he and defendant Johannes Mehserle took Oscar Grant to the ground and tried to restrain him.
"He was trying to wiggle free," Pirone testified. "I remember vividly telling him to put his hands behind his back."
Mehserle has pleaded not guilty to murder in the shooting death of Grant, 22, on New Year's Day 2009. The trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of racial tensions and intense media coverage.
Mehserle is white and Grant was black.
Pirone said he used intimidation and profanity to try to corral a group of young men that included Grant after responding to a call about a fight. The former officer, who is appealing his termination, has been described by some witnesses as aggressive and hostile toward the group prior to the shooting.
Because his actions were captured on videos taken by bystanders, Pirone likely was the most polarizing witness at Mehserle's trial. Before he began his testimony Friday, a sheriff's deputy told the packed courtroom, which included Grant's mother and uncle, that any outbursts would lead to their removal.
Pirone had difficulty remembering his interaction with Grant, particularly two instances when it appears on videos that Pirone strikes Grant.
However, Pirone did explain why he twice directed a racial epithet at Grant.
Pirone claimed Grant uttered the same slur first after saying, "'Why you messing with me? I respect the police. I have a 4-year-old daughter,'" Pirone recalled.
"I was in shock," Pirone said. "I thought I finally made a breakthrough in communication," with Grant, Pirone said.
On the video, Pirone is heard saying the epithet twice, but Grant isn't heard using the slur.
Pirone was the first police officer who got to the Fruitvale station. He testified he thought the group of men might be carrying guns, although he didn't search them for weapons. Instead, Pirone said, he asked the men to show him their hands and keep them out of their pockets.
"Hands are what kill officers," Pirone said.
Pirone then turned his attention to two men on the train, as fellow officer Marysol Domenici kept watch over those sitting on the platform.
Pirone is seen on one of the videotapes pointing his stun gun at a train window. Moments later, Grant is seen being escorted by Pirone off the train. Pirone said he had to use profanity to get Grant off the train.
Pirone testified that Grant, at that point, had complied and squatted down on the platform.
Defense attorney Michael Rains has maintained that Mehserle, who resigned shortly after the shooting, meant to pull out his Taser stun gun instead of his .40-caliber handgun when he shot Grant. In his opening statements, Rains said Mehserle told Pirone before the shooting, "Tony, Tony, Tony, I can't get his hands. I'm going to tase him."
Pirone testified about Mehserle's statements before the shooting, saying his former colleague spoke to him in a tone that he hadn't heard before. Pirone, who had his knees in Grant's back, said Mehserle told him to "get back, get back."
Mehserle's comments confused him, Pirone said. "I was holding him down," Pirone testified, referring to Grant. "I had control of his body. Why would I give that position up?"
He said he planned to remain on Grant's back while Mehserle stunned him with the Taser, a move prosecutors questioned.
A prosecutor also asked Pirone about what he thought happened immediately after the shooting. Pirone said he thought Mehserle's Taser had malfunctioned but quickly realized Grant had been shot.
"Time just almost froze," Pirone said. "I remember looking up and seeing the gun in his hand." He recounted how he saw a black hole in Grant's back, and a slug on the mortally wounded man's shirt. "Some of these things are burnt in my head and probably will be for life."
Pirone said that after the shooting, Mehserle — who he regarded as too passive at times — approached him on the train platform. Pirone said his colleague told him, "Tony, I thought he was going for a gun."
"I was like, 'Yeah, OK, man," Pirone said.
Prosecutors believe Mehserle did intend to shoot Grant, and that he used his weapon because officers were losing control of the situation, something Domenici confirmed as she ended her testimony Friday.
"You lost control of these individuals, is that your feeling?" Rains asked on cross-examination.
"Yes sir," Domenici replied.
Domenici also said she felt her life and the lives of other officers were in danger because of the chaotic scene swirling around her. Domenici said people weren't listening to her.
"I was very scared," said Domenici, who was fired in March but is appealing the decision. "I was scared because the fear I had I couldn't show it because I was an officer. So I remained composed."
Deputy District Attorney Dave Stein wondered why Domenici never pulled out her handgun if she felt threatened.
"Because your gun is your last resort," she said.
Domenici had testified at the preliminary hearing last year that the shooting could have been prevented if Grant had followed orders from officers. Domenici also said at that hearing that she feared she might have had to kill someone after realizing Mehserle had shot Grant.
She clarified Friday that she meant she would have to use her Taser, not her handgun, if the situation got worse.
"Right there, I'm thinking less lethal," she said. "Your last option is lethal force. I had to get my mind ready for that."
Associated Press Writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this report.