Demian Bulwa, 11/6/10
A judge sentenced ex-BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle to the minimum term of two years in prison Friday for fatally shooting unarmed train rider Oscar Grant, saying he believed the former officer’s testimony that he had confused his pistol for a Taser.
Mehserle, 28, faced as many as 14 years in prison after he was convicted in July of involuntary manslaughter and a separate charge of intentionally firing a gun at Grant at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland early on Jan. 1, 2009. But Judge Robert Perry threw out the firearm conviction before sentencing Mehserle in Los Angeles County Superior Court, saying there was no evidence to support it.
Mehserle’s lawyers argued all along that the shooting was a tragic mistake made by an officer under great stress, and Perry’s sentencing remarks showed he agreed.
His decision infuriated members of Grant’s family, some of whom stalked out of the courtroom before the judge had even finished speaking. Grant’s sister, Chantay Moore, exclaimed from the gallery, “Oh, my!”
Afterward, they said the outcome showed that the justice system was stacked against African Americans such as Grant, especially in dealing with white police officers such as Mehserle.
Eligible in 7 months
With credit for time he has already served behind bars, Mehserle will be eligible for release in about seven months. His attorney, Michael Rains, said he will appeal the involuntary manslaughter conviction and in the meantime will try to win Mehserle’s release on bail.
Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and manacles, Mehserle showed little reaction to the sentence, but his family members burst into tears. Rains said Mehserle “told me he felt closer to maybe getting out and seeing his son,” who was born a day after the shooting.
The events that led to Friday’s sentencing were set in motion by a fight aboard a Dublin-Pleasanton train involving the 22-year-old Grant. BART police who responded to the Fruitvale Station decided to arrest Grant for allegedly resisting officers.
Mehserle testified that he had meant to pull his Taser shock weapon as he sought to handcuff the prone Grant, but instead drew his pistol and shot the Hayward resident once in the back. Several cell phone videos taken by other passengers ensured that the incident would receive national attention.
Judge Perry said Mehserle would have been justified in using the Taser because Grant was resisting the attempts to handcuff him. Mehserle’s “weapons confusion” was owed in part to BART’s poor training of its officers and to “near-riot” conditions at the train station, Perry said.
Mehserle, he added, showed “tons of remorse.”
Perry’s remarks suggested that, had the prosecution won the murder conviction it sought, he would have overturned it because he found no intent to kill.
“Mehserle’s muscle memory took over in this moment of great danger and stress,” the judge said. “No reasonable trier of fact could have concluded that Mehserle intentionally fired his gun.”
Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, and the mother of his 6-year-old daughter, Sophina Mesa, walked out as the judge was still speaking. They, like the prosecution, believe the Taser story is a fabrication – and that Grant, far from resisting, was abused by Mehserle and other officers.
John Burris, an attorney for Grant’s family, said at a news conference after the sentencing that the message to African Americans in the Mehserle case is that life “can be taken from you with no just cause and no price to pay.”
Defense criticizes D.A.
Jack Bryson, whose two sons were with Grant when he was killed, said, “You read about injustice growing up, and now I’m right in the middle of it.”
Looking over at one of his sons, he added, “What can I tell him about this? He’s really hurting.”
At his own news conference, Rains slammed the Alameda County district attorney’s office, saying it had told lies and had “acquiesced to the mob” when it charged Mehserle with murder. He blamed prosecutors for stirring up anger that prompted violent street protests.
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley noted that Perry’s ruling throwing out the gun charge is appealable. Her office “will now evaluate all legal options,” she said in a statement.
‘I am deeply sorry’
In remarks to the court before sentencing, Mehserle apologized directly to Grant’s family for the first time and said it was Grant’s actions on the Fruitvale platform – not the fact that he was black – that led him to reach for his Taser. He said he hoped to have a “future dialogue” with the family.
Speaking through tears, he also apologized to other officers for making their jobs harder.
“I did not become an officer to take a life, but because it gave me the opportunity to protect and save lives,” Mehserle said. “I pray the public can understand that police officers are also human.”
He added, “I am deeply sorry. … Nothing I can ever do will heal the wound I have created.”
Mehserle said he had suffered greatly and was known as a “green-lighter” in jail, meaning that other inmates have the go-ahead to kill him.
Five of Grant’s family members spoke during the hearing, including his mother, who said she has serious medical problems related to the killing. Her brother, Cephus Johnson, said she suffered from paralysis of muscles in her face, which was apparent during her remarks.
“I live every day of my life in pain,” she said. Mehserle “was put on the force to protect and serve, not to kill and abuse.”
Mehserle’s possible sentence for involuntary manslaughter was two, three or four years, plus three, four or 10 years for the gun enhancement.
Perry said he gave “little weight” to one of the prosecution’s chief arguments – that Mehserle never mentioned his Taser after the shooting and instead told colleagues, “I thought he had a gun.”
Testimony showed that Mehserle had announced he was going to use the Taser, the judge said. He also quoted the testimony of one of Grant’s friends, who said that after Mehserle fired a single shot into Grant’s back, he said, “Oh s-, oh s-, I shot him.”
The sentencing is not the final word on Grant’s death. The U.S. Justice Department has said its civil rights division, along with the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI, will investigate the shooting “to determine whether the evidence warrants federal prosecution.”
BART agreed in January to pay $1.5 million in a civil settlement to Grant’s daughter, Tatiana Grant. But Grant’s mother, along with several of his friends who were with him when he was shot, still have pending lawsuits that may go to trial.
Moved from Bay Area
The criminal trial was moved to Los Angeles in an effort to find impartial jurors. In the Bay Area, many community leaders, activists and others saw the shooting as a window into a larger problem of police officers abusing people of color with little accountability.
Judge Perry, though, said he saw no racial element to the case. After reading aloud excerpts from more than 1,000 letters he has received from the public since the verdict, he said he was saddened that the killing had polarized the Bay Area.
Closing the hearing, Perry said, “I well understand that my decision today will not be well received by many people, and I am sorry for that. But all I can say is I did my best.”