SAN FRANCISCO -- Former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle took the stand in federal court Wednesday and denied that he racially profiled Oscar Grant III and his friends before he fatally shot the 22-year-old Grant at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year's Day 2009.
Mehserle said at the wrongful death civil trial brought by the slain Hayward man's father that he was just following the lead of other BART officers who detained Grant and his friends before he arrived on scene as a cover officer in the investigation into a report of a physical altercation involving black males dressed in black on a BART train.
"I don't know if it was because they were black or not," Mehserle said, appearing calm against aggressive questioning by Waukeen McCoy, the attorney representing Grant's father, Oscar Grant Jr., in the lawsuit against BART, Mehserle and the other current and former officers who were present that day.
The shooting was caught by cellphone cameras in the crowded station, sparked protests and riots, and inspired the Hollywood film, "Fruitvale Station."
"I didn't know if they were involved or not (in the train fight), but it was clear that the other officers thought they were a threat," Mehserle said.
Mehserle served approximately a year in jail after a Los Angeles jury in 2010 found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter for Grant's death.
Appearing calm, collected and polite in a gray suit and white shirt on the stand Wednesday, Mehserle said he did not agree with the jury's verdict. In the criminal trial, in which he broke down sobbing, he testified that he thought he was reaching for his Taser and shot Grant with his gun accidentally. Grant and his friends were on the ground at the time, either cuffed or in the process of being cuffed.
"I believed he posed a threat," Mehserle said of Grant. "I wasn't intending to shoot him."
Mehserle spent just over an hour on the witness stand, mostly answering questions about his weapons training before and during his approximately two-year stint as a BART police officer.
Oscar Grant Jr. has been in prison for a 1985 Oakland murder since his son's infancy. Mehserle's attorney, Michael Rains, is expected to argue that the father and son had a limited relationship and so the father is not entitled to monetary damages for his son's death.
McCoy asked Mehserle, "When you were incarcerated, did you stop loving your relatives?"
Mehserle responded, "No."
Michael Greer, one of Oscar Grant III's best friends who was among those detained beside him when he was shot, testified Wednesday that Grant and his family regularly talked on the phone, and his friend would sometimes have money or food sent to his father in prison.
"He really was trying to get to know his dad a little more in the last year, for sure," Greer said. "Really, he couldn't wait for him to get home so they (could) continue their relationship in person."
Last month, BART agreed to pay a $175,000 settlement to Greer and four other of Grant's friends who were detained at the station beside him during the shooting.
BART reached a $1.5 million settlement with the mother of Oscar Grant's young daughter, Tatiana, in January 2010. In 2011, Grant's mother Wanda Johnson was awarded a $1.3 million settlement.
The jury was paneled Monday, and opening statements were Tuesday.
Mehserle's testimony continues Friday.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.