Revolution #177, September 27, 2009

Change of Venue Maneuver in Trial of Police Murderer of Oscar Grant

On October 2nd there will be an important hearing which will decide whether the murder trial of Johannes Mehserle—the BART cop who shot 22 year old Oscar Grant in the back as he lay prone on an train platform in Oakland—takes place in Alameda County, the county where the murder occurred, or is moved to some other county in California.

In the recent past, attorneys for police on trial for acts of brutality have succeeded in getting acquittals by changing the venue. This is true even in the most extreme and damning cases where the guilt and conviction of police seemed almost certain. The police who killed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999 when he reached for his wallet were acquitted by an upstate Albany, New York jury. The Los Angeles police who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted in their first trial, in 1992, when that trial was moved to suburban Simi Valley. (Mehserle’s lawyer relies heavily on the arguments in the Rodney King case (Powell v. Superior Court) as the legal authority to support his request for a change of venue.) This “change of venue” for Mehserle’s murder trial is wrong and must be opposed. People need to be at the court on October 2nd.

The 75-page motion can only be partly dissected here. Mehserle’s attorney, Michael Rains, faces defending a man who has been seen on video, from several different angles, shooting an unarmed man in the back. The actual shooting was seen by hundreds on the train that night, and was videoed by a handful of those witnesses, and then, in the following days those videos were seen by millions on TV and on the Internet. The only defense Mehserle’s attorney has offered is that the point blank shooting of Oscar Grant was an “accident,” that Mehserle meant to use his taser and not his gun. This defense is incredibly thin. Mehserle’s attorney hopes to move the case to an area where the jurors who sit in the trial will overlook the evidence and be biased in favor of a white police officer who killed a young Black man.

In the motion, Rains claims the media coverage, the repeated viewing of the videoed murder of Oscar Grant, and the protests, mean Mehserle can’t get “impartial” jurors in Alameda County and therefore the trial must be moved. In the course of his argument, Rains brings out some damning exposure of the reality of how police treat Black people in Oakland. Rains argues that any Black person who gets on the jury will face extreme pressure to find Mehserle guilty and that their life experience will influence them. “...there can be no doubt that police officers shoot and kill black citizens of this county at a proportion far higher than their proportion of the is impossible to dispute the impression left by the numbers, an impression held by significant numbers of potential jurors in this County: if you’re a black person in Alameda County, it’s dangerous to deal with the police.” (p. 62 of Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Change of Venue) The motion cites damning statistics “ this county blacks are the targets of police homicides determined to be justifiable at a rate about three times that of their proportion of the population. There were forty-eight such killings between 1999 and 2008 and African Americans were the targets of some 41% of these homicides, though they make up only about 13.5% of the population of the County.” (Motion, p. 8) Further, that “between 2004 and 2008, there were 45 police shootings in Oakland alone . Although blacks make up about a third of Oakland’s population, they were the targets in 85 percent of the shootings.” (Motion p. 8, 9, italics in the original.)

Rains further argues that in the context of Oakland’s continuing history of systemic racism in its police force, AND since there has been a continuing history of resistance against police brutality there, Mehserle can not get a fair trial. Rains cites the January 2009 rebellion in Oakland— when hundreds of people of different nationalities erupted in protest after a week had passed since Oscar Grant’s murder but Mehserle had not even been arrested—as well as many other protests and gatherings by activists, and the existence and “proliferation” of groups that have mobilized against this murder. He accuses activists of spreading disinformation and creating political pressure that will unfairly influence the case. “Indybay has provided regular coverage of the Grant shooting and its aftermath, with a strong and not particularly concealed view that Grant was killed because he is Black, that the shooting is evidence of generalized police brutality against the Black community, and that Mehserle is guilty of murder. Indeed, the site always refers to the shooting as the “murder” of Oscar Grant, a word not used by the Chronicle, Tribune, television stations and so forth.” (Motion, p. 57) He cites as one of the many websites that spread “bias” against his client, including by using such words as “murder” when it covered the killing of Oscar Grant. Actually, without all the protest, the struggle to speak the truth about what happened and get it out in the public eye, Mehserle might never have even been arrested, let alone tried for murder.

Think about it—we live under a system that methodically lies about and covers up police brutality, murder and repression, and that never acknowledges that this creates an atmosphere where ordinary people can’t get fair trials and are systematically mistreated all the time. But in this case the fact that SOME of the truth has gotten out is supposed to be a reason that the trial should be moved from Alameda County.

The trial of Johannes Mehserle is, according to the motion, the first trial of a police officer for a murder committed while on duty in the history of California. This is a searing exposure of how the system protects murdering cops—thousands of people have been killed by cops in California, and not a single murder trial until now. This change of venue motion must be strongly opposed and exposed. There was no justice in the first trial in the Rodney King case. There was no justice in the trial and acquittal of the four cops who shot Amadou Diallo. The system must not be allowed to exonerate the blatant execution of Oscar Grant. As this case moves toward trial people will be organizing across the country and in Oakland for the 14th National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality.

Enough is Enough! Justice for Oscar Grant.

Mehserle’s motion for change of venue can be found here:

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