Former BART Officer Johannes Mehserle gets 2 years in Oscar Grant killing
A former police officer convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting of an unarmed man on an Oakland train station platform was sentenced Friday to two years in prison, sparking outrage from relatives and supporters of the victim who denounced the punishment as too lenient.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry said evidence in the racially charged case showed that the shooting was an accident caused when Johannes Mehserle mistakenly reached for a firearm instead of an electric Taser weapon he meant to use.
As Perry spoke, the victim’s mother rushed from the courtroom with other relatives and supporters. “Nothing, he got nothing!” she told reporters after she exited.
The sentencing followed a tearful apology from Mehserle, who, handcuffed to a waist chain over his orange jail scrubs, insisted that the shooting was unintentional.
“I want to say how deeply sorry I am,” said Mehserle, 28. “Nothing I could ever say or do could heal the wound I created.”
Grainy video footage of the New Year’s Day 2009 shooting was captured by several witnesses and shows Mehserle, who is white, firing one round into the back of Oscar J. Grant III, who was black. Grant, 22, was lying face-down on the Fruitvale Station platform when he was shot.
The shooting triggered rioting days later and again in July, when a Los Angeles jury rejected murder and voluntary manslaughter charges but found that the officer acted with gross negligence.
A four-hour peaceful demonstration at Oakland City Hall moved into the surrounding streets and took on a more aggressive tone Friday evening with marchers smashing windshields, making obscene gestures at surrounding police and noisily shouting slogans.
Police in riot gear allowed several hundred marchers to move through the streets for about an hour before encircling a smaller number near 6th Avenue and East 17th Street. Demonstrators left a trail of broken windshields as they moved down 17th Street, angering some residents.
Police moved in after one officer was injured when struck by a car and another’s gun was grabbed by a protester. By late Friday, police had arrested more than 100 demonstrators.
The criminal case against Mehserle was moved to downtown Los Angeles amid concern about the extensive media coverage of the killing in the Bay Area.
The former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer faced up to 14 years in prison. But the judge sharply reduced the maximum possible sentence by dismissing a finding by jurors that Mehserle intentionally used a gun. Among the reasons Perry cited was that he failed to provide jurors with clear instructions on the gun allegation and that the evidence was insufficient to show that the officer used his firearm deliberately.
The judge had the option of releasing Mehserle on probation but sentenced him to the minimum possible prison term.
Perry signaled that he might dismiss the gun allegation early on in the emotional hearing, prompting the victim’s uncle to confront the judge when given a chance to talk about the impact of Grant’s death.
“We want justice,” Cephus Johnson told Perry in a shaking voice. “We should not lose this case because of you.”
Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, told the judge that Mehserle’s explanation for the shooting was a “fabrication.” She said anything less than the maximum punishment would show that police officers are above the law.
“He must be held accountable,” she said through sobs.
But Perry cited a long list of factors that he said showed the killing was unintentional. Among them was testimony from two people, including a friend of Grant, who said they heard the officer say he intended to use his Taser shortly before the shooting. Video footage, the judge said, also showed Mehserle putting his hands to his head in “shock and dismay.”
Perry said Grant did nothing to justify being shot, but he said the evidence showed that Mehserle was not influenced by race and that Grant was resisting arrest before his death.
“The evidence that this was an accidental shooting and Mehserle did not intend to shoot Grant is simply overwhelming,” the judge said.
Perry said several times that he was saddened by how polarizing the case had become. The court, he said, received more than 1,000 letters and postcards before the sentencing urging him to rule one way or another.
The judge finally issued an unusual apology, telling the courtroom that no one would be happy with his rulings.
“I well understand that my decision today will not be well-received by many people,” the judge said. “I’m sorry for that. But all I can say is I did my best.”
Outside the courthouse, dozens of protesters chanted “Mehserle is guilty, guilty. The whole damn system is guilty, guilty.”
Grant’s uncle said he was unconvinced by Mehserle’s show of remorse. A lawyer representing the victim’s family said he and his clients were shocked by the sentence.
Attorney John L. Burris compared the punishment to that of NFL star Michael Vick, who was ordered in 2007 to spend 23 months in federal prison for his part in running an illegal dog-fighting ring.
“What we take from it is that Oscar Grant’s life was essentially not worth very much,” Burris said.
Mehserle’s attorney, Michael L. Rains, said he was disappointed his client would serve any prison time but was gratified that the judge agreed the shooting was a tragic mistake.
Rains blasted the Alameda County district attorney’s office for seeking a murder conviction in the shooting, accusing prosecutors of building a case on “falsehoods” and heightening tensions in the Bay Area.
“Frankly, the biggest culprit in setting the community outrage on fire in Oakland has been the district attorney,” he said.
He said Mehserle was appealing the conviction.
A district attorney’s office statement said prosecutors are evaluating whether to appeal Perry’s rulings. An office spokeswoman declined to respond to Rains’ comments, but the statement said prosecutors “will foster the dialogue that strives for peace and nonviolence.”
In Oakland, Grant’s grandfather, Oscar Grant Sr., criticized the sentence but called for calm.
“My message to the public is this: Don’t use this as a reason to destroy the city,” he said.
As news of the sentence spread, a small shrine with flowers, candles and an outsized drawing of a smiling Grant was erected in front of City Hall. Passersby left messages.
“The fight is not over,” read one. Another said: “All my love and hope for change.”
A peaceful crowd of about 250 protesters gathered in the afternoon. Some were in tears. Others said they were angry. Many said they were unsurprised by what they saw as a painfully light sentence.
“There’s no justice for us in this society,” said Kanika Ajanaku, 65, who is black.
Staff writer Lee Romney in Oakland contributed to this report.
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