Oscar Grant Trial: Gripping Testimony Opens Defense

Johannes Mehserle's defense kicks off with a combative, emotional exchange with Grant's friend over what really happened on the BART platform that deadly night.

By Julianne Hing Jun 23, 2010

Johannes Mehserle’s defense opened Tuesday with more than three hours of tense, emotional testimony from Oscar Grant’s good friend Jackie Bryson, who was on the train platform with Grant when he was killed. Defense attorney Michael Rains worked to paint Bryson as a liar and, failingly, to prompt an admission that he overheard Mehserle say he planned to Taser Grant, thus proving the shooting an accident.

Bryson proved a formidable witness against the defense, however. His recounting of Grant’s shooting, which came after three hours of combative back and forth with Rains, gripped the courtroom. "Smoke was coming out of his back, and they turned him over and there was a puddle of blood," Bryson recalled. "I said, ‘Oscar, Oscar, stay awake.’ Everybody started screaming his name," Bryson recalled. Bryson remembered someone begging for the BART police to call for help, but being told: "When you shut the fuck up, then we’ll call the ambulance."

"His eyes is there, but blood starts coming out of his mouth," Bryson remembered, the emotion bubbling up in his voice. "’Let me talk to him,’ I said, ‘I can keep him here. I know you don’t want him to die.’" Bryson told cops on the platform.

Behind me, court observers sobbed and winced in anguish. The grief and anger was still very fresh for people.

Throughout the testimony, Rains was singularly focused on dismantling Bryson’s narrative. Like ex-BART cops Tony Pirone and Marysol Domenici, Bryson countered that after so many interviews and sworn statements, there were bound to be contradictions in his memories of the night. But Rains was much less forgiving with Bryson than prosecutor David Stein had been with Pirone and Domenici’s inconsistencies.

Bryson and Rains went over the timeline of the night. Bryson had been with friends on New Year’s Eve and they’d all headed into San Francisco to try to see the fireworks. When they missed the show they stayed in the city anyway and walked around before heading back to the East Bay. It was while they were on the train that a fight broke out. Rains got Bryson to admit that he’d lied about the fight on the train and other moments in the night.

Rains kept the questions coming in rapidfire succession, but Bryson was unmoved, repeating: "I don’t remember," or "I don’t recall," or "Not to my knowledge," every time Rains tried to force Bryson into a corner. Rains tried to wear Bryson down and show that he had intentionally lied to investigators. Bryson admitted that in the days and months after the shooting, he wasn’t in his "right mind," and had started drinking to deal with the trauma of seeing his friend shot in front of him. When Rains challenged him on statements he gave in a January 9, 2009 interview, Bryson reminded him that it was two days after Oscar Grant’s funeral.

Rains’ strategy was to impeach Bryson by showing he was lying on the stand so that the jury would instead focus on previous sworn statements Bryson had made. To that end, Rains focused on several key moments, like that Oscar Grant kept his arms underneath him despite repeated demands from Mehserle and Pirone to "give up his arms." The defense also showed that Bryson had in fact remembered Mehserle saying: "I’m going to tase him" right before the gunshot rang out, but today Bryson would not confirm his previous statements. If Bryson had confirmed that on the stand today it’d have been a big win for Rains, who is trying to prove that Mehserle meant to reach for his Taser but instead pulled out his gun. Bryson would not give in.

Rains asked Bryson what he was doing after Grant was shot. Bryson said that he was "not doing anything," but Rains showed video of Bryson moving away from Grant toward the BART train. Rains said that Bryson meant to leave his friend on the platform, that he was trying to escape the scene, and finally Bryson seemed to have had enough of being shoved around by Mehserle’s attorney.

"I would never leave my friend," Bryson said. "What got you that distance that close to the train?" Rains shot back. "My friend just got shot. I don’t know what I was doing. I was in shock," Bryson responded. "You were in handcuffs, weren’t you?" Rains said.

And Bryson said: "You understand somebody just got shot in front of you for no reason by somebody that is here to protect us. He’s supposed to be the good one. He come up and shot us. You want to make us look bad, dawg? Ain’t nobody–I would never stand up and shoot somebody in their back. You want to make me look stupid, like I’m the bad one. C’mon now."

The direct examination took its toll on the 22-year-old Bryson. After court adjourned for a break, the rest of the jury and court observers filed out of the room, and the legal teams packed up their papers and files, but Bryson didn’t move to get up from his seat on the witness stand. He looked spent and sat unmoving, shoulders set, eyes red and swollen.

The Prosecution Rests, Unfortunately
Yesterday marked the first day of trial since the prosecution rested its case. I so wanted it to be otherwise, but I was unconvinced by the prosecution’s case. After eight days of court and 26 witnesses, I was left with more anger for Tony Pirone than for Johannes Mehserle. Much of the testimony never even referred to Mehserle, who’s barely in any of the five cell phone videos taken that night. And Mehserle only got to the BART train platform after Pirone and Marysol Domenici had done the worst of the roughing up of Oscar Grant and his friends. Pirone is the real villain in this case, and he’s not even the one on trial.

All throughout the prosecution, people in the audience kept waiting for the prosecution to produce a star witness or an explosive piece of evidence that just never surfaced. The prosecutor’s case rested primarily on expert testimony from firearms and police training experts whose basic message was: Mehserle should have known better, and he was ignoring protocol and conducting himself in a manner that deviated from the textbook. While Stein has indicated that he has more evidence that he’s secreted away until after the defense rests, he hasn’t built a convincing case to convict Mehserle of murder.

In the court of public opinion though, Mehserle is already guilty. He was guilty the minute those videos were uploaded onto YouTube, but not in the eyes of the court yet, and not by the legal definition of murder.