The 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant was a pivotal moment in the fight for police accountability: a graphic video showing a transit officer shooting Grant in the back was among the first of its kind, documenting a harrowing and deadly example of police brutality and setting off nationwide protests as millions bore secondhand witness to the death of the 22-year-old.
This week, more than a decade after Grant was fatally shot by ex-Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) officer Johannes Mehserle, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said she was assigning a team of lawyers “to look back into the circumstances that caused the death of Oscar Grant,” reports NBC News. Mehserle shot Grant as he lay face down on the ground at an Oakland BART station on Jan. 1, 2009.
“We will evaluate the evidence and the law, including the applicable law at the time and the statute of limitations, and make a determination,” said O’Malley. The announcement came after Grant’s family and members of the Oakland community called for Oscar’s case to be reopened, following a 2019 report showing another BART officer was responsible for escalating the situation that led to Grant’s death.
“We have listened closely to the requests of the family of Oscar Grant. The murder of Oscar Grant greatly impacted the county and the state,” O’Malley told NPR in a statement.
Though Grant’s death predated the official Black Lives Matter movement, his killing reverberated in similar ways and for similar reasons as later high-profile police killings of Black people, including Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
As the Guardian reports, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office initially charged Mehserle with murder, but a Los Angeles jury (Mehserle’s attorneys successfully argued for a change of venue, arguing that he couldn’t get a fair and impartial jury in Oakland) convicted him of involuntary manslaughter. Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison and was released in 2011.
Mehserle can’t be tried again for killing Grant, but opening up the case again could allow prosecutors to pursue charges against another former BART officer, Anthony Pirone.
The Guardian explains:
A report released last year under a new California police transparency law disclosed that another transit officer on scene that night had repeatedly lied to investigators and had punched Grant without justification. That Bart officer, Anthony Pirone, “started a cascade of events that ultimately led to the shooting”, including calling Grant the N-word while detaining him and hitting him in the face, according to the report.
The report also cast doubt on Mehserle’s argument that he meant to draw his Taser and not his gun, noting that “enhanced video” suggested Mehserle was “intending to pull his firearm and not his Taser”.
Video from the train station also showed Pirone striking Grant in the head and kneeing him, reported the Associated Press.
According to the the East Bay Times, Grant’s family called for felony murder charges against Pirone, who was fired after the shooting but never charged with a crime.
“It feels good, but we’re not holding our breath,” Oscar Grant’s uncle, Cephus “Uncle Bobby” X Johnson, told the Guardian about the district attorney’s announcement. “We’ve been doing this for many years and we’ve seen the system break many hearts.”
“There would be no killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor if we paid attention to what happened to Oscar in 2009,” added Johnson. “Now this reopening is a whole new flashpoint that will reverberate all across this nation.”