OAKLAND, Calif. – In a verdict some observers called contradictory, a jury in Los Angeles July 8 found former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of unarmed BART passenger Oscar Grant III, and added a sentencing enhancement for use of a gun. Sentencing is set for Aug. 6.
Mehserle, 28, had also faced more serious charges of second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter in the Jan. 1, 2009, killing as the young African American lay face down on a BART platform following reports of a disturbance on a train.
Cell phone videos, taken by other passengers and widely circulated, showed several young men sitting on the platform, not resisting the BART police officers.
In his defense, Mehserle alleged that Grant and his friends represented a serious threat to police seeking to arrest them, and claimed he meant to use his taser but confused it with his gun.
The prosecution contended that Mehserle’s training, and the safeguards against unintentional use of a gun, made confusing the two weapons impossible.
Observers have pointed out that the verdict of involuntary manslaughter seemed to accept Mehserle’s claim his gun use was an accident, but the sentencing enhancement the jury added for use of a gun appeared to reject that claim.
No African American jurors were on the panel. Their decision came after deliberations had been underway for just a day and a half.
Action in the case is far from over. Civil rights attorney John Burris is representing the Grant family in a civil lawsuit against BART.
And right after the verdict was announced, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that the Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI “have an open investigation into the fatal shooting” to determine if federal prosecution is warranted.
The judicial system “has failed us,” Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, said in Los Angeles, as she vowed that “as a family and as a nation of African American people, we will continue to fight for our equal rights in society.”
“My son was murdered, murdered!” Johnson declared. “And the law has not held the officer accountable in the way he should have been held accountable.”
Attorney Burris called the jury “dismissive,” but added, “In my long history of being involved in police matters since 1979 and well over 30 homicides with police, never have I had a case when a police officer was convicted of any crime against an African American male.”
Others have noted that Mehserle’s conviction marks the first time in California a police officer has been convicted for a killing in the line of duty.
Shortly after the verdict was announced, over 1,000 community members rallied in downtown Oakland near City Hall. Police were everywhere; media had predicted for days that violence would erupt following the announcement.
Though the crowd was filled with outrage over the verdict, they protested peacefully for hours. Speakers, mostly young African Americans, condemned an “unjust system,” called for nonviolent action, and vowed to organize to “change the way the system operates, to change the way the police can get away with police brutality.”
Declaring, “I know what went down today is wrong,” Grant’s grandfather, Oscar Grant I, told the crowd, “Protest, protest righteously. Don’t dishonor my grandson by coming out here, tearing up Oakland.”
In actions some observers said police encouraged by abruptly ending the rally, and others blamed on advance planning by troublemakers, looting and vandalism did take place as the evening wore on. Police reportedly made over 80 arrests.
Photos: Marilyn Bechtel/PW