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Deliberations open in transit cop's LA murder trial

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Jurors began deliberations on Friday in the racially charged trial of a white transit police officer charged with murder for the shooting death of an unarmed black man that triggered a night of rioting in Oakland, California.

The jury, which had just over two hours to consider the case before recessing for a three-day holiday weekend, must decide whether the videotaped shooting was deliberate or a tragic mistake.

The defendant, Johannes Mehserle, 28, testified during the trial that he mistakenly grabbed his handgun instead of his Taser and shot Oscar Grant, 22, while trying to subdue the victim during the New Year's Day 2009 confrontation.

But prosecutors said in closing arguments that Mehserle "lost all control" and intentionally shot Grant because the victim was resisting arrest.

The former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer faces one count of second-degree murder in the shooting, which was recorded by bystanders on videos that circulated widely on the Internet and aired on television. Grant appeared to be lying face down on the train platform when he was shot in the back.

Footage shows Mehserle holstering his gun immediately afterward and putting his hands on his head.

The killing unleashed a night of civil unrest in Oakland, where angry demonstrators smashed store windows and set cars on fire. Police arrested over 100 people on charges of vandalism, unlawful assembly and assault.

The Alameda County Superior Court judge in the case, which was moved to Los Angeles because of heavy pretrial publicity in Oakland, ruled that the jury could not consider a first-degree murder charge. Judge Robert Perry held there was too little evidence to show the killing was premeditated.

If convicted of second-degree murder, Mehserle faces a sentence of up to life in prison. The jury could alternatively find him guilty of lesser charges of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter -- or acquit him altogether.

It is rare for a police officer to be charged with murder in connection with an on-duty shooting. Mehserle has been free on $3 million bond.

Police in Oakland, across the Bay from San Francisco, moved to a tactical alert status earlier in the week, changing shift schedules and canceling days off to be ready for any unrest after the verdict is returned.

"(We) have heard of possible outside agitation in an attempt to turn the peaceful movement into acts of civil unrest," police said in a statement.

Referring to the racial dynamics in the case, defense lawyer Michael Rains urged jurors to resist any temptation to use the case to "address social injustice ... or render a verdict as some sort of commentary" on the relationship between police and minorities.

(Editing by Todd Eastham)

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