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Oscar Grant's Cellphones Returned to His Mother, 15 Years After Notorious Police Killing on BART Platform

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Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant's mother, stands on the same BART platform where her son was shot and killed by a BART police officer on New Year's Day 2009. She spends a lot of time in the community where she helps support at-risk youth as well as family members who have lost loved ones to police violence.
Rev. Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant's mother, in 2017, standing on the same BART platform where her son was shot and killed by a BART police officer on New Year's Day 2009. (Alyssa Jeong Perry/KQED)

After 15 years of repeated requests, Oscar Grant’s mother was finally handed back the last of her son’s possessions held by authorities.

At a press conference Thursday morning, Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price gave Grant’s mother, Rev. Wanda Johnson, her son’s two cellphones, the final pieces of evidence that had yet to be returned to the family.

“It’s another piece of my life that’s been fulfilled, having my son’s property,” Johnson said. “And that’s all families want, is to be able to have their loved ones’ property because it gives you a sense [they’re] still there with you. Even though Oscar’s not here, I still have his property, and it does my heart glad.”

Grant was fatally shot in the back by former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, as a second officer held the unarmed 22-year-old man face down on the Fruitvale BART Station platform in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009.

The killing, captured on cellphone video, sparked major protests in the Bay Area against police violence and inspired the 2013 movie Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan, about Grant’s final 24 hours before the incident.

Mehserle, who argued he had mistakenly grabbed and fired his gun instead of his Taser, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served just 11 months of a two-year sentence.

His partner, Anthony Pirone, who was captured on video punching Grant in the face and kneeing him in the head, was never charged.

Johnson said that former DA Nancy O’Malley’s staff repeatedly told her that Grant’s phones had been inadvertently mixed up in a large bag with other seized electronic devices and that they could not identify the ones that belonged to Grant.

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“There is no justifiable reason that we are aware of why these phones were not returned to her more than 10 years ago,” Price told reporters. “I have been in touch with [Johnson] over the years, and I know that this is something that was dear to her heart.”

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In an email to KQED, O’Malley, who took office in late 2009, said no one ever asked her about the phones and that other members of her team never brought up the issue. She said her staff even reopened the case to determine if they could bring charges against Pirone, who she referred to as “the abusive BART cop,” but ultimately declined to do so.

On Thursday, Johnson said she was excited to go home to charge the phones and hopefully find some additional photos of her son. She added that the final photos on one of the phones likely capture Mehserle pointing a Taser at Grant before taking out his gun — evidence that she said would help debunk the officer’s argument that he had confused the two weapons.

“His last phone call was to his fiancée at the time,” said Johnson, who founded the Oscar Grant Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to rebuild trust between residents in predominantly Black, high-crime communities and law enforcement, and offers youth scholarships, grief counseling and other community services.

“He was up on the platform talking to her, telling her that they were beating them up for no reason,” she said. “It means a lot to be able to look in and see if he had any other pictures he had taken.”

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