Paul T. Rosynsky, 12/4/10
Former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle will continue to serve his seven-month term in jail while an appeal of a jury’s involuntary manslaughter conviction against him moves through the courts, a judge declared Friday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry said there was no legal basis to grant bail because, in his opinion, Mehserle’s likelihood of winning a reversal of the jury’s verdict is minimal.
“This court sincerely believes (the jury’s) decision will not be reversed,” Perry said. “The verdict is fully supported by the evidence and is unlikely to be disturbed on appeal.”
Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in July for killing Oscar Grant III, 22, on the Fruitvale BART station platform early Jan. 1, 2009.
Several months after his conviction, Mehserle was given what Grant’s family argued was a lenient punishment, when Perry sentenced the 28-year-old to a two-year prison term. Because of credits for time served, Mehserle will likely spend just seven months in prison.
Nevertheless, Mehserle’s attorney Michael Rains immediately filed a notice for appeal and asked for bail.
In court Friday, Rains briefly argued that Mehserle met the three criteria necessary for a defendant to be released from jail on bail while an appeal is considered. Those criteria include not being a flight risk, not being a danger to society and having “substantial issues on appeal” that would lead a judge to believe a conviction could be overturned.
As a result, Rains said, his client should have received a $30,000 bail.
Rains made his arguments in a much more relaxed courtroom atmosphere than the one that filled the courtroom last month when Mehserle was sentenced. Empty seats remained in the galley, and only a couple of Grant’s family members attended. Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, did not make the trip to Los Angeles. There was also no shouting from the audience and only a handful of protesters stood outside the courthouse building before the hearing.
Inside the court, the arguments between Rains and prosecutors also appeared to be less heated as each stated their case without raising voices.
Prosecutors did not challenge Rains’ beliefs that Mehserle was not a flight risk or a danger to society, and Perry ruled Friday that he agreed.
However, Perry did not agree with Rains’ argument that Mehserle had raised several legal issues that an appeals court would find damaging enough to reverse the jury’s involuntary manslaughter conviction.
“Just because an issue can be raised on appeal does not mean it would likely result in an overturned conviction,” Perry said. “The jury found his actions constituted gross negligence.”
Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, said he was pleased that Mehserle has to serve a stint in prison but still angered that his nephew’s killing was only punished by less than a year in prison.
“Had this bail been granted, it would have been an atomic bomb dropping on the Bay Area,” Johnson said. “We are pleased the motion was denied.”
Rains did not appear surprised when Perry denied bail but said outside of court that he will continue to fight for his client’s release and for the conviction to be overturned.
Even though Rains admitted Mehserle will most likely be freed from jail by the time an appeal is heard, he said it was important to keep fighting to protect other police officers.
“What Johannes is concerned about is that if this conviction stands, it may send a signal to other DA’s in the state that it’s OK to prosecute a police officer for making this kind of mistake,” Rains said.
Prosecutors did not comment on the hearing and said in court that Perry should not grant bail because Rains had not shown how his legal issues would result in an overturned conviction. They also argued that most of the legal errors cited by Rains were already dealt with in Perry’s decision to overturn Mehserle’s conviction of using a gun during the crime and giving the former officer the least possible jail term allowed.
Rains said that he will ask an appeals court next week to review the denial of bail and said that he would rather have Mehserle serve his time in Los Angeles County Jail rather than state prison because the jail is safer.
“The L.A. County Jail is a known quantity,” Rains said. “It doesn’t make good sense to transfer him to state prison.”