As mentioned below, at the time of the verdict many were speculating that the Department of Justice would investigate the murder of a young, unarmed African-American man at the hands of a white cop. That speculation was on the mark as the Department of Justice has confirmed that its civil rights division will investigate the murder as a civil rights crime. If convicted of federal charges, Mehserle will face more than the 2-4 years an involuntary manslaughter conviction carries.
The background of the crime and trial follows:
New Year’s Day, 2009, Oakland police received a report of a fight on a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train. When the officers arrived at the scene they detained a group of five men, including a 22-year-old African American male named Oscar Grant.
A short time later transit police officer Johannes Mehserle, 28 and white, arrived on the scene as well. Grant, unarmed and accused of no crime, was being held by officers, face down on the ground. With one officer kneeling on Oscar Grant’s neck, Officer Mehserle shot Grant in the back, killing the young man who witnesses say had been trying to diffuse the situation.
Mehserle was removed from duty and charged in Grant’s murder. Due to the extensive media coverage his trial was moved from Oakland to Los Angeles. Not a single African-American sat on the Mehserle jury and, stunningly, Los Angeles prosecutors have not won a murder conviction in a police shooting since 1983.
During the trial Mehserle testified that he accidentally drew his gun, located on his right side and fired. Mehserle testified that he had thought he was going for his taser, kept on his left side. The question as to why an already subdued witness needed tasing, let alone a bullet in the back, was never answered. Furthermore, Mehserle could not explain how he confused his handgun with the differently weighted and differently sized taser.
Ultimately though Mehserle’s flimsy explanation was enough for Los Angeles jurors who, after about six hours of deliberation spread out over two days found the former officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a charge that carries a two to four year sentence. Mehserle had faced a second degree-murder charge, which had he been convicted, carries a sentence of 15 years to life.
The involuntary manslaughter conviction is cold comfort for anyone seeking justice in Grant’s murder. Instead what was offered up was another reminder that when crime victims are black there is rarely a just turn in the system. The entire episode was caught on tape, so take a look for yourself and ask, just how involuntary were Mehserle’s actions?
Mehserle will be sentenced on August 6th. In the meantime the Oakland community, and those of us who feel the sting of this brutality nationwide, must come to grips with another example of the ingrained and embedded racism inherent in our criminal justice system. When an injustice like the Grant verdict occurs it taints not just the relations between law enforcement and the African-American community, but the entire criminal justice and civic structure of our communities. Grant was an unarmed man, laying face down with an officer on his back. Mehserle stood up and deliberately shot him. There was nothing involuntary about it. After the verdict was read rumors started circulating that the Department of Justice was considering taking up the case for federal prosecution. I sure hope they do because if our justice system is to work at all the elements of fundamental fairness must be respected and they must be believed. But the jurors in Los Angeles yesterday gave us no reason to believe in either fairness or justice for the family of Oscar Grant or for any other non-white crime victim in this country.
photo courtesy of JacobRuff via Flickr