Update: Oscar Grant’s photograph of Johannes Mehserle
This interview was posted about six months ago; this week Mehserle was released from prison, after serving one year of a two-year sentence.
Oscar Grant’s photograph of transit police officer Johannes Mehserle is rare: a portrait of the photographer’s killer. Unlike the recent photograph that a politician captured in the Philippines, Grant’s photograph, taken moments before Mehserle shot him in the back, was intentional.
Much of the media attention given to the Oscar Grant case focused on a handful of videos made by other passengers on the BART train, some of which show Grant being shot. While being detained by BART police, Grant called his ex-girlfriend Sophina Mesa twice from the platform. During this time he also took the photo of Mehserle and sent it to Mesa. Grant’s photograph of Mehserle did not get as much coverage as the videos, as it wasn’t released until the trial began.
Grant’s photograph raises an important issue that faces every American: the right to photograph, videotape and document while being detained or arrested by the police. Many of us assume we have this right, but with existing wiretapping laws, you can still be arrested and your camera confiscated. Radley Balko’s Reason.com article “The War on Cameras" is essential reading on this subject.
Demian Bulwa is a reporter and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, who has covered the Oscar Grant case since the shooting, through the entire Mehserle trial. I asked him a few questions over the phone about this photograph.
How did the prosecution and defense use this photograph as evidence in the trial?
Both sides used flat screen TVs, multimedia, everything was timed and choreographed. It seemed they felt they might lose credibility if they weren’t sharp with multimedia. At times the arguments felt like PowerPoint presentations. There were photos, quotes, videos, video of the Taser training.
It was used by prosecution to show two things: 1. that he [Mehserle] knew his Taser from his gun, that he had actually taken out his Taser twice, that he knew full well between the two weapons. 2. That Oscar was being abused and was concerned about it.
It was one of many pieces of evidence. It’s part of the puzzle, and hard to tell which ones stuck with the jury.
What facts were presented about the photograph, when it was taken? Did he take it while face down, turning around?
Grant was sitting on the ground. The guys were sitting on the edge of the platform for a while. He wouldn’t have had the opportunity in the last moments, the officers were on top of him, with his arms behind him.
Was there any suggestion by either side that taking this photograph provoked Mehserle, or was some form of resisting arrest?
I don’t recall.
Based on the evidence in the trial, and your own speculation, why do you think Oscar Grant took this photograph?
Most likely he was documenting unfair treatment. He said something to his girlfriend [during the phone call], like “I’m getting beat up here.” It was a way of documenting that, and putting Mehserle on notice. If you take a picture of someone you are saying: I’m watching your behavior. You’re accountable. You are expressing your concern and putting them on notice.