Several dozen demonstrators gathered in downtown Los Angeles on Monday to protest the early release of Johannes Mehserle, the former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer convicted in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man at an Oakland train station.
Mehserle, 29, left Los Angeles County Jail early Monday after serving 11 months of a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Oscar Grant III.
Grant, 22, an African American grocery store butcher, was lying face-down on the platform at the BART Fruitvale station when the white officer shot him once in the back on New Year’s Day 2009.
Standing in front of the criminal courthouse Monday, Julia Wallace, 29, a member of the South Central Neighborhood Council, said Mehserle’s punishment was unduly lenient.
“He served less time than Michael Vick did for beating a dog,” she said. “Oscar Grant’s life is worth more than a year.”
The protesters, some carrying signs reading “Let innocent people live in peace,” later moved down the street to the federal court building, where they demanded that the Department of Justice file federal civil rights charges against Mehserle and other officers who were at the scene. One of the BART officers was captured on video uttering a racial slur at Grant before he was shot.
“This was a hate crime plain and simple,” Wallace said.
Grant’s uncle, Cephus Johnson, said the Department of Justice’s civil rights division in Washington is investigating the case.
A spokeswoman for the division did not return a phone call. Mehserle’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
The racially tinged case, originally charged as a murder, drew comparisons to the police beating of motorist Rodney King in 1991 and was transferred to Los Angeles because of the anger it stoked in Oakland.
Protests and rioting in Oakland followed the Los Angeles jury’s decision in November to convict Mehserle on a lesser charge.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry on Friday ordered Mehserle’s release with credit for time served and good behavior.
Johnson, the victim’s uncle, said authorities misled him about the release hearing date, denying the family an opportunity to speak, as required by the California Victims Bill of Rights.
“They snuck him out,” said Johnson, 53, a systems engineer. “We would have liked to have been heard.”
Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute in Portland, Ore., said if the court erred, family members could request a “do-over” of the sentencing hearing.
“The law is broad and the intent is that victims are notified, present and heard at any hearing that is going to consider release,” Garvin said.
Grant, 22, was shot in the predawn hours of New Year’s Day 2009 as transit police responded to reports of a fight on a train packed with holiday revelers.
Several passengers on the train began recording the events on video as a police officer appeared to manhandle Grant and his friends.
Alameda County prosecutors alleged that Mehserle, then 26, fired deliberately after an ugly confrontation between Grant and another officer.
Mehserle testified he mistook his weapon for a stun gun and said the death was a tragic but honest mistake.
The president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, which funded Mehserle’s defense, said last week that Mehserle received no special treatment from the court system. Mehserle is appealing his conviction.