The Shooting Death of Oscar Grant: What You Need to Know

Justice for Oscar Grant
 Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty Images 

On New Year's Day, 2009, an Oakland police officer shot and killed an unarmed, pinned suspect. The officer, Joe Mehserle, was arrested on murder charges on January 14th, 2009 and the trial began on June 10, 2010.

Passengers Detained

On January 1st, 2009 at approximately 2 a.m., officers of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) responded to reports of a fight on an Oakland subway car. They detained approximately 20 passengers.

One of the passengers, who witnesses say was not actually involved in the fight, was 22-year-old, Oscar Grant.

Grant Captured

Grant, a local grocery store butcher, and father of a four-year-old girl were unarmed. He approached police in what appeared to be a nonviolent manner and was backed against the wall. In one video, he can be seen kneeling and pleading with police for reasons that are not yet clear. Some eyewitnesses say that he had already begun asking police not to shoot him. Officers restrained Grant and pinned him, face down, on the pavement. It is not clear whether he was handcuffed at this point.

Shot to Death by Officer Johannes Mehserle

As shown in a widely disseminated cell phone video of the shooting, Grant was restrained by two officers. A third, 27-year-old Johannes Mehserle, then drew his service revolver and shot Grant fatally in the back.

Current Status

Mehserle quietly resigned from BART and has issued no statements regarding his reasons for the shooting.

An internal investigation is pending. An attorney for Grant's family has filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city.

On January 14th, 2009, Johannes Mehserle was arrested and charged with suspicion of murder.


Because Mehserle shot Grant in front of dozens of witnesses, including other police officers, it is difficult to fathom why he would have chosen this opportunity to execute a suspect in cold blood.

Alternate theories suggest that he may have mistaken his revolver for a Taser (unlikely given the fact that BART's Tasers bear no resemblance to firearms and require cartridges to be pre-loaded), or may have felt something while frisking Grant, such as a cell phone, that he mistook for a weapon.

Our visceral impression of the shooting is similar to that of one expert quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle in a recent interview: We assumed the shooting was accidental until we saw the video, but Mehserle's relative calm at the moment the gun discharged is jarring.

... Roy Bedard, who has trained police officers around the world, advanced a different theory after his first viewing of the video: that the shooting was a pure accident, a trigger pulled because of a loss of balance or a loud noise.

But in an indication of how the videos might move the investigation, Bedard reached a different conclusion after viewing the shooting from a different angle.

"Looking at it, I hate to say this, it looks like an execution to me," he said.

But we can't fully accept this explanation because we don't understand why Mehserle, whose wife was pregnant and gave birth to a son within days of the shooting, would execute a suspect in public.

That doesn't make any sense. We need more data—we all do. The trial may have brought us closer to understanding why Mehserle killed Oscar Grant. But whether it does or not, this killer should be held fully accountable for his actions.