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Court Rules Oscar Grant’s Father, Friends Can Sue Mehserle, BART Officers

| July 30, 2013
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SAN FRANCISCO (KQED and AP) — A federal appeals court says Oscar’s Grant father can proceed with a civil rights lawsuit against Johannes Mehserle, the BART officer who shot and killed his son on a train platform.

Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar J. Grant III, is comforted by her supporters outside the Los Angeles Superior Court after the involuntary manslaughter verdict against Johannes Mehserle (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar J. Grant III, is comforted by her supporters outside Los Angeles Superior Court after the involuntary manslaughter verdict against Johannes Mehserle. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision on Tuesday affirmed a lower court’s ruling. It rejected  Mehserle’s bid for immunity by claiming that he was acting in his official capacity when he fatally shot Grant in the back as the 22-year-old lay facedown on a BART platform early New Year’s Day 2009.

Grant and his friends were being detained after becoming involved in a fracas on the train. The incident was captured on video by several bystanders. Mehserle claimed that he mistakenly shot Grant when he thought he was using his Taser. He served 11 months in prison after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

The appeals court ruled today that it’s up to a jury to determine whether Mehserle was justified in shooting Grant. It also rejected Mehserle’s argument that Grant and his father lacked a sufficiently strong relationship to support the father’s claim of deprivation of a familial relationship. Grant’s father is currently serving a prison sentence for murder.

Oscar Grant’s friends who were also involved in the encounter, recently depicted in the film “Fruitvale Station,” also brought suit against Mehserle, as well as against BART officers Anthony Pirone and Marysol Domenici. The court today held that Mehserle and Pirone were not entitled to immunity from the friends’ claims of improper arrest. The denial of Domenici’s immunity by a lower court was vacated and remanded back.

After the incident, Pirone was fired by BART for escalating the confrontation with Grant and his friends. Domenici was also let go but regained her job after a labor arbitrator ruled in her favor.

The Chronicle writes that the case is scheduled to resume in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on Aug. 8. Also …

 BART is paying for all of the officers’ legal bills and would be responsible for any compensatory damages won at trial. The officers would have to pay any punitive damages.

Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, told KQED today that the family was pleased with the 9th Circuit’s ruling. “We believe the system has somehow allowed us to see that there’s an opportunity here for some redress of these young men and the father through the system,” he said. “It would have been an extreme travesty had the 9th Circuit denied these men and the father the right to pursue and have their day in court, which would have been just as much of a travesty as seeing what happened with the Trayvon Martin verdict.”

The Mercury News wrote that Michael Rains, Mehserle’s lawyer, “was not surprised by the court’s decision and is prepared to defend the case if it reaches a trial.”

Ini 2011, BART reached a $1.3 million settlement with Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, over the shooting.  Sophina Mesa, the mother of Grant’s daughter, Tatiana, settled with BART on behalf of her daughter for $1.5 million.

You can read the decision here (pdf).

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