(11-06) 04:00 PST Los Angeles - --
A judge sentenced ex-BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle to the minimum term of two years in prison Friday for fatally shooting unarmed train rider Oscar Grant, saying he believed the former officer's testimony that he had confused his pistol for a Taser.
Mehserle, 28, faced as many as 14 years in prison after he was convicted in July of involuntary manslaughter and a separate charge of intentionally firing a gun at Grant at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland early on Jan. 1, 2009. But Judge Robert Perry threw out the firearm conviction before sentencing Mehserle in Los Angeles County Superior Court, saying there was no evidence to support it.
Mehserle's lawyers argued all along that the shooting was a tragic mistake made by an officer under great stress, and Perry's sentencing remarks showed he agreed.
His decision infuriated members of Grant's family, some of whom stalked out of the courtroom before the judge had even finished speaking. Grant's sister, Chantay Moore, exclaimed from the gallery, "Oh, my!"
Afterward, they said the outcome showed that the justice system was stacked against African Americans such as Grant, especially in dealing with white police officers such as Mehserle.
Eligible in 7 months
With credit for time he has already served behind bars, Mehserle will be eligible for release in about seven months. His attorney, Michael Rains, said he will appeal the involuntary manslaughter conviction and in the meantime will try to win Mehserle's release on bail.
Wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and manacles, Mehserle showed little reaction to the sentence, but his family members burst into tears. Rains said Mehserle "told me he felt closer to maybe getting out and seeing his son," who was born a day after the shooting.
The events that led to Friday's sentencing were set in motion by a fight aboard a Dublin-Pleasanton train involving the 22-year-old Grant. BART police who responded to the Fruitvale Station decided to arrest Grant for allegedly resisting officers.
Mehserle testified that he had meant to pull his Taser shock weapon as he sought to handcuff the prone Grant, but instead drew his pistol and shot the Hayward resident once in the back. Several cell phone videos taken by other passengers ensured that the incident would receive national attention.
Judge Perry said Mehserle would have been justified in using the Taser because Grant was resisting the attempts to handcuff him. Mehserle's "weapons confusion" was owed in part to BART's poor training of its officers and to "near-riot" conditions at the train station, Perry said.
Mehserle, he added, showed "tons of remorse."
Perry's remarks suggested that, had the prosecution won the murder conviction it sought, he would have overturned it because he found no intent to kill.
"Mehserle's muscle memory took over in this moment of great danger and stress," the judge said. "No reasonable trier of fact could have concluded that Mehserle intentionally fired his gun."
Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, and the mother of his 6-year-old daughter, Sophina Mesa, walked out as the judge was still speaking. They, like the prosecution, believe the Taser story is a fabrication - and that Grant, far from resisting, was abused by Mehserle and other officers.
John Burris, an attorney for Grant's family, said at a news conference after the sentencing that the message to African Americans in the Mehserle case is that life "can be taken from you with no just cause and no price to pay."
Defense criticizes D.A.
Jack Bryson, whose two sons were with Grant when he was killed, said, "You read about injustice growing up, and now I'm right in the middle of it."
Looking over at one of his sons, he added, "What can I tell him about this? He's really hurting."