A former transit police officer seen on video shooting an unarmed man in the back has been charged with murder and could face up to life in prison in a racially tinged case that has sparked outrage and street protests in Oakland.
Johannes Mehserle was arrested Tuesday night in Zephyr Cove, Nev., nearly a week after resigning from the Bay Area Rapid Transit District police force in the wake of the New Year’s Day shooting death of Oscar J. Grant III, authorities said Wednesday.
“At this point, what I feel the evidence indicates is an unlawful killing done by an intentional act,” Alameda County Dist. Atty. Tom Orloff said Wednesday in announcing the charges.
Legal experts said it was rare for an officer to be charged with murder in connection with an on-duty shooting, and that convictions are difficult.
Mehserle’s attorney, Christopher Miller, said he expected that his client would eventually be cleared of the charges arising from “that chaotic night.”
Mehserle “was a fine young officer with an excellent work history,” Miller said at a Sacramento news conference, adding that “this case is not just about a video.”
The shooting of Grant, a 22-year-old African American, by the 27-year-old white officer sparked a protest a week ago that ended in more than 100 arrests, and scores of damaged buildings and torched cars in downtown Oakland.
The city girded for the possibility of more violence during a demonstration Wednesday. Many employers sent workers home early to ease traffic expected from the 4 p.m. protest and also because “there is a degree of uncertainty,” Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said.
Despite concerns, the protest was mostly peaceful but there were scattered reports of violence late Wednesday night.
Hundreds of people gathered at City Hall and marched to the Alameda County Courthouse, shouting, “We will march, we will chant, until there’s justice for Oscar Grant!” and “I am Oscar Grant!” Organizers also called for Orloff’s resignation. Police in riot gear were out in force.
Addressing the group on Oak Street between the courthouse and the county administration building, Grant’s grandfather rejoiced that “they got the man who killed my grandson.” Oscar Grant Sr. also beseeched the crowd to “keep peace.”
The shooting occurred two weeks ago, early on New Year’s morning. Grant and his friends were heading home to the East Bay aboard a BART train after celebrating New Year’s Eve in San Francisco when a fight broke out between two groups of riders. BART police met the train at Oakland’s Fruitvale station and demanded that passengers disembark.
In videos that have been broadcast on television and viewed hundreds of thousands of times on the Internet, a uniformed officer later identified as Mehserle stands over a prostrate Grant, pulls his gun and fires point-blank into Grant’s back.
Although six of the officers involved in the incident gave statements shortly afterward, Mehserle contacted an attorney and refused to comment. Nearly a week after the shooting, he resigned from the BART police force and holed up at a family property near Lake Tahoe.
Oakland Police Chief Wayne Tucker said Wednesday that “I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest he was a flight risk” and that his department had Mehserle under electronic surveillance when he was in seclusion near Lake Tahoe.
Miller, the defense attorney, said Mehserle had gone into seclusion after threats on his life and never planned to evade arrest.
The murder charge was filed Tuesday in Alameda County. After being contacted by Oakland police, Mehserle gave himself up, was arrested that night by Douglas County, Nev., sheriff’s deputies and transported to the Bay Area on Wednesday.
Race has been an undercurrent of the shooting and its aftermath.
At a news conference Wednesday with Dellums and Tucker, Jakada Imani, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, applauded the mayor for his support but said recent unrest occurred because it seemed “one of our own could be gunned down and no one cared.”
BART Police Chief Gary Gee discounted race as a motivation in the shooting, although he said that “we will look at that as part of our debriefing.”
“I can tell you from the first 12, 13 days of this investigation, we have not found any nexus to race that provoked this to happen,” he said during the Wednesday news conference with Orloff.
Although there have been calls for prosecution of the other six officers involved in the incident, Orloff said he does not expect any more charges to be filed.
He also acknowledged that he has never charged a police officer with murder for actions in the line of duty and said that he could not recall hearing of any such prosecutions.
“There have been very few such prosecutions in the United States in my memory,” said Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that deals with police reform issues.
“The fact of a prosecution of a police officer in these circumstances is quite rare,” Bobb said. “The police are given a substantial amount of leeway when they perceive themselves to be in danger of death or serious injury.”
David Klinger, a University of Missouri professor of criminology and criminal justice, said prosecutions of police are rare “because the vast majority of time the police officers shoot, they do so under appropriate circumstances.”
Klinger said that every year, police officers are charged with crimes arising from shooting incidents, but that they are usually acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge.
“You have to remember that in order to get a conviction, the prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer had a criminal intent,” Klinger said. “And that is a pretty high bar.”
Klinger is an expert witness in officer shootings who has testified for plaintiffs in civil cases and in defense of officers.
There has been some speculation that Mehserle meant to stun Grant with a Taser, not shoot him with his gun -- a confusion that has occurred before, Klinger said.
A Madera, Calif., police officer killed a man when he was handcuffed in the back seat of a police car in 2002, Klinger said. The victim was a young Latino who had been arrested when police tried to break up a party.
The officer said she meant to subdue the victim -- who was trying to kick out a car window -- with a Taser. Instead she used her service revolver.
Prosecutors in that case decided not to charge the officer, saying there was no criminal intent. Mehserle, however, could receive as much as 25 years to life if he is convicted of murder, with an additional 25 years because he used a gun.
Times staff writer Eric Bailey in Sacramento contributed to this report.