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BART officer charged with murder appears in L.A. court

January 8, 2010 | 10:40 am

More than 100 protesters demanding justice for a Bay Area man shot to death by a BART police officer on New Year's Day last year converged on a downtown Los Angeles courthouse today for the first proceedings since the racially charged case was moved here from Alameda County.

Johannes Mehserle, who resigned from the Bay Area Rapid Transit police force a week after the shooting he admits to but contends was unintentional, will stand trial for murder before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry in May, the judge said at his pretrial hearing.

Perry prolonged a gag order issued by an Alameda County judge prohibiting either side in the case from discussing it in public. He also rejected a request from Bay Area broadcasters to allow televised coverage of the trial in light of the intense public interest in the shooting death that provoked three days of rioting that damaged dozens of Oakland businesses.

Perry said his experience of high-profile trials is that allowing cameras in the courtroom "is detrimental to the search for truth and justice." The judge said he would prohibit cellphones, texting, the use of laptop computers and all other means of recording or transmitting the proceedings when the trial begins in mid-May.

Mehserle, 28, has received death threats, as have his family and attorneys, posing a risk to the safety of witnesses who might testify on his behalf, Perry said in denying broadcast coverage of the proceedings for the benefit of Bay Area residents unable to travel to Los Angeles for the trial.

Mehserle's attorney, Michael Rains, told the court that his client wasn't contesting the cause of death in the Jan. 1, 2009, slaying of Oscar J. Grant III at Oakland's Fruitvale station. What is at issue in the case, Rains said, is the former officer's "intent" in the incident. It is rare for a police officer to be charged with murder in an on-duty shooting due to the qualified immunity accorded law enforcement.

Many of the protesters who picketed the courthouse traveled from the Bay Area to hoist placards demanding justice for Grant, the 22-year-old Hayward man shot to death as BART officers were trying to subdue a trainload of unruly New Year's revelers.

Dozens of witnesses reported seeing the white officer shoot Grant, who is black, including some who captured the killing on cellphone cameras.

Mehserle told Alameda County authorities at preliminary court proceedings that he was reaching for his stun gun and accidentally drew his revolver instead.

"There are thousands of Oscar Grants everyday," Hannibal Shakur, a 23-year-old Oakland student making a documentary about the victim, said in front of the crowd outside the courthouse.

"It was a shame. It was a clear murder," Shakur said. "Young brothers get killed by the police everyday. I'm guessing (Mehserle) won't be held accountable. L.A. has a history. If they wanted to give us justice, they could have done that in Oakland."

The trial was moved to Southern California because of the high publicity surrounding the case in the Bay Area.

-- Carol J. Williams and Gerrick D. Kennedy

Photos: Protest in L.A. as former BART officer appears in court

Photos: BART shooting protests in January 2009

Photo: Protesters demanding justice for a Bay Area man shot to death by a BART police officer demonstrate outside the Criminal Courts building in Los Angeles. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times