Confusing the left and right is merely an annoying “brain quirk” for some people, but for police officer Johannes Mehserle it could mean a lengthy prison sentence and a catalyst for riots in the streets of Oakland.
Mehserle is the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer who shot an unarmed Oscar King, a young man with a troubled history who minutes before had been removed from the mass-transit car for unruly behavior on New Year’s Day of 2010. One news report, including footage of the shooting, is featured below. The Wikipedia entry on the incident is here.
Mehserle contended that he was reaching for his taser (holstered on the left side of his body) to subdue the unruly Grant, but he actually reached for his gun (on the right side of his body) and shot King. Much of the public is incredulous that he could have made such a grievous error, and continued unrest is simmering today as Mehserle’s sentencing awaits judicial decision.
I’ve watched the video (captured by a citizen on the subway’s platform) several times, and to me it is obvious that no one was more surprised than Mehserle to see that he had, in fact, shot Grant instead of firing the taser. Here is an excerpt from Mehserle’s motion for bail:
[Fellow BART officer] Pirone said he told Grant “Stop resisting, you’re under arrest, put your hands behind your back.” At that time Pirone said he heard Mehserle say, “Put your hands behind your back, stop resisting, stop resisting, put your hands behind your back.” Then Mehserle said, “I’m going to taze him, I’m going to taze him. I can’t get his arms. He won’t give me his arms. His hands are going for his waistband.” Then Mehserle popped up and said, “Tony, Tony, get away, back up, back up.” Pirone did not know if Grant was armed. Mehserle had fear in his voice. Pirone had never heard Mehserle’s voice with that tone. Mehserle sounded afraid.
Next Mehserle stood, reached for his gun, and shot into Grant’s back. Mehserle appeared surprised and raised his hands to his face. According to his criminal defense attorney, several eyewitnesses described Mehserle as “looking stunned” and said he repeated “Oh my god!” several times after the shooting and raised his hands to his head.
There is no getting around that a young man was tragically killed. Yet, there is also no getting through to some people that this might truly have been a grievous accident and not a racist-inspired intentional murder. Brain dysfunction is the “elephant in the room” of our society on so many levels.
Years ago, when I was first learning about ADHD, I met a woman with ADHD whose lifelong dream of being a firefighter was quashed when, repeatedly, she confused clockwise from counter-clockwise − an unacceptable confusion for someone trusted to affix fire hoses properly. She didn’t seem to connect it to ADHD, but I made a mental note to research it further. Over the years, I’ve heard many other people with ADHD express frustration over their left-right confusion. (One friend’s efforts at rock-climbing were foiled because he could not keep left-right straight in his mind when tying the ropes.) Is this an “ADHD thing?” I don’t know. But it does seem to be a common “brain thing,” and anecdotal reports from my friends with ADHD are that their neurospatial abilities improved with medication treatment.
One study from the International Journal of Neuroscience showed that “71 of 364 (19.5%) college professors and 311 of 1185 (26.2%) college students said that they occasionally, frequently or all of the time had difficulty when they had to quickly identify right from left.” Test your own acumen at distinguishing right from left with the researchers’ online quiz.