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BART train operator testifies in controversial shooting case

June 21, 2010 |  1:42 pm

A BART train operator on Monday recounted in court the chaotic moments on an Oakland train station platform immediately before and after a transit officer fatally shot an unarmed passenger who was laying face down on the ground.

Keecha Williams told a downtown Los Angeles court that a crowd of people on the packed train she was operating in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 became much louder after she saw a different transit officer appear to punch a man in a group he had detained on the platform. One passenger contacted Williams on the train’s intercom, she said.

“Can you close the doors? I don’t want to get shot,” the woman frantically told her, Williams testified. Then Williams heard a gunshot. She said she peeked out of the window of her cabin at the front of the train and saw passengers spilling out onto the platform.

“It was just mayhem,” she said. Williams’ testimony came on Day 7 of the murder trial of former Officer Johannes Mehserle, who resigned from the BART Police Department a week after he fatally shot 22-year-old Oscar J. Grant III. Prosecutors contend that Mehserle, 28, deliberately used his firearm.

The officer’s attorney argues that Mehserle mistook his firearm for his electric Taser weapon. The trial was moved to Los Angeles County following concern about pretrial publicity about the shooting in the Bay Area. Last week, one of Mehserle’s colleagues, former Officer Anthony Pirone, testified that Mehserle announced he was planning to use his Taser moments before he fired a single round into Grant’s back.

The Alameda County prosecutor, David R. Stein, has sought to portray Pirone and another officer who testified as attempting to justify the shooting by falsely claiming that Grant and his friends resisted and by exaggerating the threat they felt to their own safety.

Stein questioned Williams about her brief conversation with Pirone the night of the shooting. Pirone testified last week that the train operator told him that the men he had detained were responsible for an earlier fight on the train. Williams testified she never said such a thing.

Under cross-examination, Williams said the passenger who had been concerned about getting shot did not explain whether she was in fear of police or others.

And she said she never saw Mehserle on the platform that night.

Later during Monday morning’s court session, a supervisor for BART’s dispatch center testified that a recording of the night’s police radio communications showed that an officer notified dispatchers about a crowd surrounding officers on the platform just before the shooting. In response, the supervisor testified, a dispatcher declared an emergency for the officers on the platform, notifying others on duty to avoid talking on the radio so that the officers at the station could get through uninterrupted.

-- Jack Leonard