Ex-BART officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter
A former transit police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man on an Oakland train station platform was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Thursday, capping a racially charged case that some activists viewed as a test of how the justice system treats officers accused of abuse.
Johannes Mehserle, who testified that he mistakenly used his firearm instead of an electric Taser weapon, showed no emotion as he was handcuffed and led out of the downtown Los Angeles courtroom to await transportation to jail. His relatives wept quietly.
Involuntary manslaughter carries a penalty of two to four years in prison, but a sentencing enhancement for using a gun means Mehserle faces an additional three to 10 years. He is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 6.
Family members of Oscar J. Grant III, who was shot as he lay face-down on the platform, reacted with outrage at the verdict.
“The system let us down,” the victim’s mother, Wanda Johnson, said outside the courthouse. “My son was murdered, and the law has not held that officer accountable.”
She and others complained that the verdict was evidence the justice system does not do enough to hold officers accountable for abusing African Americans.
Despite fears of possible unrest, Oakland’s streets were calm in the first few hours after the verdict. The downtown remained mostly deserted except for a peaceful but loud crowd that gathered for a rally at the Civic Center.
Some protesters threw bottles at officers, but police were largely maintaining order as they kept the crowd of about 500 to 800 people bottled up in several blocks. As darkness fell and the crowd shrank, police declared an unlawful assembly and ordered people to disperse.
The New Year’s Day 2009 shooting was captured on video by several witnesses. The grainy footage shows Mehserle, who is white, firing a single round into the back of Grant, who was black.
In the days after the killing, windows were smashed and cars set ablaze as Oakland residents reacted in fury and grief. Mehserle resigned a week later without explaining his actions. His trial was moved to Los Angeles amid concern about the extensive media coverage of the killing in the Bay Area.
The case has drawn comparisons to the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King that ultimately triggered riots in Los Angeles nearly two decades ago.
“This generation of young people identified with this young man,” Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said at a news conference.
The downtown Los Angeles jury of eight women and four men, which included no African Americans, deliberated for less than seven hours before opting for the least serious of three homicide charges, rejecting second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.
Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley said she was disappointed by the verdict but believed the jury had rejected Mehserle’s claim that the shooting was an accident.
“It was important to note that this jury did not relieve Johannes Mehserle of his criminal liability,” she said.
But Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School who attended portions of the trial, said the verdict showed that jurors believed the shooting was an accident caused by gross negligence.
“This verdict sends a pretty clear message to police that you can’t make mistakes that result in tragic deaths of suspects,” said Levenson, a former federal prosecutor.
Jurors and Mehserle’s attorney left the courthouse without speaking to reporters and could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors faced a difficult task in persuading a jury to find the former officer guilty of murder. A Los Angeles jury has not returned such a verdict in a police shooting since 1983, when a sheriff’s deputy was convicted of shooting a pregnant woman and killing her nearly full-term fetus.
Nevertheless, the verdict will raise concerns among law enforcement officers that they could be held criminally liable for accidents, said Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, whose legal defense fund has been paying for Mehserle’s defense.
“We have a life that’s been lost and a life that’s been ruined,” Cottingham said.
The events that led to Grant’s death began about 2 a.m. as police responded to reports of a fight on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train stopped at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland.
Grant, a 22-year-old father and grocery store butcher who was on parole for a weapons conviction, was returning home after celebrating New Year’s Eve in San Francisco.
Several witnesses testified that the first BART police officer to arrive on the platform used excessive force as he detained Grant and his friends, who were largely compliant. Mehserle arrived with other officers a few minutes later to help.
Alameda County Deputy Dist. Atty. David R. Stein, who tried the case, rejected the idea that the shooting was a mistake. The officer’s holster was specially designed to prevent easy release of his firearm. And the prosecutor contrasted the light, bright yellow Taser gun with the heavier black Sig Sauer handgun that Mehserle fired.
Stein argued that Mehserle, 28, intentionally fired his handgun in anger as he tried to handcuff Grant.
“When an officer who has been trained to use a gun takes it out and fires a bullet, they intend to shoot. It’s that simple,” Stein told jurors.
In tearful testimony, Mehserle said he intended to use his Taser because he believed Grant might be reaching for a gun in his pants pocket. While the officer’s firearm was on his right side, the Taser was in a holster on the left side of his belt, but angled so it could be pulled out with his right hand.
Two people, including a friend of Grant’s, testified that they heard the officer say he intended to use his Taser shortly before the shooting. Numerous witnesses said the officer looked shocked after the gunshot.
The video footage shows Mehserle raising his hands to his head and then bending over immediately after the shooting — actions that his lawyer said were evidence of his despair.
“He’s sick to his stomach,” defense attorney Michael L. Rains told jurors, “because he has shot a man who did not deserve to be shot.”
Rains argued that Mehserle, who had been on the force less than two years, should be acquitted because he followed his training and department policy when he decided to use his Taser. But Stein told jurors that the former officer was guilty of a crime even if they believed he had meant to grab his Taser.
“The police are here to protect and to serve all of us,” Stein told jurors at the end of the trial, “not just some of us.”
Times staff writers Maura Dolan, Abby Sewell, Victoria Kim and Sam Allen contributed to this report.