Mehserle convicted of involuntary manslaughter

Friday, July 9, 2010


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This image provided by the Los Angeles County Superior Court shows a cell phone image taken, according to lawyers, by Oscar Grant of former San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle shortly before Mehserle shot Grant on New Year's Day 2009.





The Question

Agree with the Mehserle verdict?

Yes, involuntary manslaughter fits the crime
No, it should have been a more serious crime
No, it should have been not guilty


(07-09) 04:00 PDT Los Angeles --

A jury found former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle guilty Thursday of involuntary manslaughter, concluding that he did not intend to kill train rider Oscar Grant when he shot him in the back on New Year's Day 2009 but acted so recklessly that he showed a disregard for Grant's life.

The verdict was an all-but-unprecedented instance of a police officer being convicted for an on-duty shooting. But it deeply disappointed Grant's relatives, who said the video-recorded shooting was a murder and that Mehserle deserved a sentence years longer than the one he is likely to receive.

"My son was murdered," said Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, outside the downtown Los Angeles courthouse where the trial was moved to escape heavy publicity in the Bay Area. "He was murdered and the law has not held the officer accountable."

The jury also found that Mehserle, 28, had used a gun during the crime. In all, he could be sentenced to five to 14 years in prison.

The jury took 6 1/2 hours over two days to decide that Mehserle was guilty of a crime, but not guilty of the other options it had been given - second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter.

Their verdict suggests they believed Mehserle when he testified that he had mistaken his pistol for his Taser as he sought to subdue the 22-year-old Grant at Fruitvale Station in Oakland following a fight on a BART train, a shooting that was captured on video by five other riders as well as a platform camera.

'I love you guys'

Mehserle, who had been free on $3 million bail, was remanded into custody and led away in handcuffs after the verdict was read. Dressed in a gray suit and blue shirt, he turned to his sobbing parents and sister in the front row of the gallery and said softly, "I love you guys."

His attorney, Michael Rains, did not comment outside court. But the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California - whose legal fund is paying for Mehserle's defense - said he had mixed feelings.

"This whole thing is such a tragedy and such a waste. There's been a life lost and a life ruined," Ron Cottingham said. "I've had a chance to meet Johannes Mehserle and I know the type of person he is. It was an accident, and Mehserle is paying dearly for that accident."

John Burris, an Oakland attorney representing Grant's family, decried "a true compromise verdict."

"The system is rarely fair when a police officer shoots an African American male," Burris said. "No true justice has been given." Grant was African American and Mehserle is white.

Grant's uncle, Cephus "Bobby" Johnson, said "we knew from the beginning that we were at war with the system. ... We have been slapped in the face by this system that has denied us true justice."

D.A. disappointed

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley, speaking at a news conference in Oakland, said she was disappointed and frustrated by the verdict.

"We believe Johannes Mehserle was guilty of the crime of murder," she said. "We presented the case that way, we presented the evidence that way, and the jury found otherwise."

Jurors left the courthouse without commenting.

Mehserle's possible sentence for involuntary manslaughter is two, three or four years, plus three, four or 10 years for using a gun. That means the minimum total sentence that Judge Robert Perry could impose would be five years, and the maximum would be 14 years.

Sentencing was set for Aug. 6. O'Malley would not say what sentence she will seek.

It is possible that there could be further criminal proceedings against Mehserle.

The U.S. Justice Department issued a statement saying its civil rights division, the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI "have an open investigation into the fatal shooting and, at the conclusion of the state prosecution, will conduct an independent review of the facts and circumstances to determine whether the evidence warrants federal prosecution."

Tight security

Security was heavy in the courtroom, with 16 sheriff's deputies and several plainclothes officers present, as the jury filed in just after 4 p.m. Mehserle had entered a few minutes before, looking shaken and nervous. Grant's mother sat in the second row of the gallery, her head bowed in apparent prayer.

When the "not guilty" verdict was read to the second-degree murder charge, Mehserle's father, Todd Mehserle, began to sob. One of the jurors also dabbed at her eyes.

Mehserle's shooting of Grant was witnessed by dozens of New Year's revelers, most of whom were on their way home from a fireworks show in San Francisco. It prompted a series of protests, including one that mushroomed into a riot in downtown Oakland.

Prosecutor David Stein said during the trial that Mehserle had "lost all control" of his emotions and shot Grant intentionally in the back after briefly trying to handcuff him. Grant, who had a young daughter, was unarmed and on his chest.

Taking the stand near the end of the trial, Mehserle testified that he had decided to use his Taser on Grant because he saw Grant put his right hand in his pants pocket and believed the Hayward man might be reaching for a gun.

Mehserle said he had accidentally pulled out his pistol and fired a single shot before realizing he had grabbed the wrong weapon.

Mehserle's Taser was positioned to the left of his belt buckle. The right-handed officer's gun was on his right hip.

Fight on train

Grant had been detained at about 2 a.m., along with four friends, for fighting on a Dublin-Pleasanton train. He and a second man were soon placed under arrest by then-BART Officer Anthony Pirone, who said they had resisted him. Stein, the prosecutor, argued that the arrest itself was unlawful because Grant had cooperated.

Video footage played repeatedly in court showed that as Mehserle raised his gun, Pirone had his left knee on Grant's neck. Pirone's left hand was pressing Grant's head into the platform, and Pirone's right hand was holding Grant's right arm - the same one Mehserle said he had struggled with - behind his back.

The shooting brought on a tumultuous period at BART, which has a full-service police force of about 200 officers. Police Chief Gary Gee retired late last year, and outside auditors criticized the transit agency for the way it trained, supervised and disciplined cops.

Mehserle resigned soon after the shooting and never spoke with BART internal affairs investigators.

Pirone and his partner the night of the shooting, Marysol Domenici, were fired earlier this year by BART - Pirone for his actions on the train platform and Domenici for the way she reported the incident to investigators.

BART agreed in January to pay $1.5 million in a civil settlement to Grant's daughter, Tatiana Grant, who is now 6. Grant's mother and several of his friends who were with him when he was shot still have pending lawsuits.

East Bay tensions

The trial was moved to Los Angeles in part because of the tensions the killing caused in the East Bay. Some community leaders, activists and others believe the shooting underscored a larger problem of police officers abusing people of color with little accountability.

"It was clear that many people across the country, especially in the African American community, had watched this trial and sincerely hoped that the system would work for African Americans in a case where the evidence of police abuse was presented clearly on videotape," said Johnson, Grant's uncle. "I'm sure all of these people are now impacted in the same negative way we are."

There were no African Americans on the jury that convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter. Seven jurors identified themselves as white, three identified themselves as Latino and one identified herself as Asian. One juror declined to state a race or ethnicity.

The defense put much of the blame for the shooting on poor training at BART - particularly Taser training, which Mehserle received a month before the shooting - and on the character of Grant, a parolee who had spent time in prison.

Rains, the defense attorney, argued that Grant never stopped resisting Mehserle's efforts to handcuff him before he was shot.

The case marked the first murder prosecution of an on-duty Bay Area police officer. Prosecutors rarely file charges against police for shootings. A Chronicle review of police use-of-force cases around the country found just six cases in the past 15 years - not including the BART shooting - in which murder charges had been filed.

The cases, involving a total of 13 officers, typically resulted in large civil payouts to victims' relatives. However, none of the officers was convicted of murder and most were acquitted or cleared altogether. One pleaded no contest to manslaughter and got three years in prison.

Chronicle staff writers Jaxon Van Derbeken and Bob Egelko contributed to this report.

E-mail Demian Bulwa at dbulwa@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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