The state of California took a baby step towards justice last week when a jury convicted Johannes Mehserle of killing Oscar Grant on New Years Day 2009. It’s the first time in the state’s history that a police officer has been convicted of killing a person in the line of duty.
Mehserle, a Bay Area Rail Transit (BART) officer at the time of the shooting, testified that he felt threatened by Grant who was face down and unarmed on the train platform when Mehserle shot him in his back. And judging from the involuntary manslaughter conviction, the jury sided with Mehserle’s version of the events that night over what they saw of the videotaped evidence.
Involuntary manslaughter, which carries a prison term of only two to four years, was the least of what the former cop could have been convicted. Second degree murder and voluntary manslaughter were their other choices. If it weren’t for video accounts of the incident there probably would have been no conviction at all. And that’s a thorn in the side of thousands of protestors and Grant’s family who lost a friend, a son, a nephew and a father.
Mehserle said Grant kept moving his hands towards his pockets even as Mehserle and at least one other officer pinned Grant to the ground. And it was at that time Mehserle said he decided to tase Grant but accidently pulled his gun instead of the taser.
Even without the videotape provided by at least five witnesses at the scene and aired by various media outlets across the country, Mehserle’s testimony alone should have led the jury to convict him of voluntary manslaughter at the very least because tasing Grant under the same circumstances would have been excessive use of force. Hand cuffing Grant to keep him from moving his hands would have been a better decision at the time. But for reasons unclear to everybody except the jury this former cop chose to take it to the next level and ended up killing a man in the process. That’s not involuntary – it’s voluntary reckless behavior. Because Mehserle committed the crime by using a handgun he could get ten years added to his manslaughter sentence. But at this point his fate is in the hands of Judge Robert Perry who could sentence Mehserle to anywhere from probation to 14 years.
The judge, like the jury, probably knows about the former cop’s written apology penned four days before he was convicted. And that too could have a bearing on his sentence. There were eight women and four men on the jury; none of whom listed their race as Black like the victim. The defense team for Mehserle, who is white, had the trial moved to LA County because of the racially charged case. Now the Justice Department and the FBI will investigate the killing as a hate crime.
Mehserle will be sentenced on August 6th. And although his level of conviction isn’t what Grant’s family and friends wanted, if it stops the use of excessive force by some law officers in the line of duty for fear they could get jail time, Grant’s death could save the lives of countless others.
Steffanie is a freelance journalist living in the Dallas, Texas metroplex. Send questions, comments or requests for speaking engagements to Steffanie at [email protected]. And see the video version of her journal at youtube.com/steffanierivers.