Mehserle trial verdict draws violence to Oakland, legal scrutiny

Protests erupted in Oakland overnight after the Johannes Mehserle trial ended Thursday with a conviction for the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. But legal experts call the outcome of the transit police officer's trial fair.

By , Staff writer

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    A man passes a mural of Oscar Grant in Oakland, Calif., Thursday afternoon, before the jury delivered its verdict in the trial of former transit police officer Johannes Mehserle.
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Activists and legal experts are trying to get Oakland residents and others outraged by the verdict in the trial of former transit police officer Johannes Mehserle to concentrate on further legal solutions to the case, and to shun violence.

The involuntary manslaughter conviction handed down by jurors in a Los Angeles court room Thursday for the New Year's Day 2009 killing of Oscar Grant carries with it at least two years in state prison and a maximum of four years. The judge could add 10 more years to the sentence because Mr. Mehserle used a gun in the killing. In addition, Mehserle could be forced to serve 85 percent of his eventual sentence, a much higher standard than the 50 percent most state prisoners serve.

A $25 million wrongful death civil lawsuit has also been filed by Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris on behalf of the Grant family. And further charges could be filed under the 1983 federal Civil Rights Act for depriving Oscar Grant of his civil rights. “There is also the possibility of suing BART itself for not training Mehserle properly,” says Laurie Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

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She says the system worked more strongly than many are giving it credit for. “This is a strong statement by the jury,” says Levinson. “It’s not like [Mehserle] is walking away with a slap on the wrist. His career is gone and he still faces state prison.”

Najee Ali, an LA-based activist, says he is calling for thousands to contact the judge in the case to push for the maximum possible sentence. “Unless he is sentenced to the maximum, there is no justice in this case,” says Mr. Ali. Sentencing is expected August 6.

Confusion on the difference between the possible verdicts – involuntary manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, and second-degree murder – may have contributed to the outrage surrounding the outcome. "From the legal standpoint, I think there is much confusion about the difference between murder, voluntary, and involuntary manslaughter," says Los Angeles attorney Peter Berlin.

"Clearly, the jury did not believe Mehserle had the requisite intent necessary for murder or voluntary manslaughter," he says. "The fact the Mehserle’s act was 'voluntary' has nothing to do with his intent according to the jury. "Voluntary" and "involuntary" are legal terms misunderstood by many lay people, Mr Berlin adds.

Calm, then violence in Oakland

After the jury of eight women and four men – none black – announced their verdict, hundreds of people gathered in downtown Oakland for planned vigils.

Reports from the scene said it started out quietly, but as the night wore it brought with it an outbreak of violence. Hundreds of law enforcement officers from across the Bay Area converged on the area to help local police quell protests that included looting, smashed windows, ignited trash bins and fireworks.

A Foot Locker store was looted in the melee, which gives credence to claims that the violence was the result of "outside agitators," and not people invested in the case. “Before the sun went down, I was happy with everything," protester Stephen Allen told the Oakland Tribune. "The people who went in there and came out with shoes, that's not about Oscar Grant anymore. What we had before the sun went down, that was justice. This is just pure stupidity."

Local activist group leaders said they tried to keep things peaceful. For weeks, groups such as Youth Uprising and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights held community meetings calling for calm, discussing possible legal alternatives, and producing public service announcements denouncing violence.

“There is going to be initial sadness and disappointment, but for many people that will turn into a sense of outrage,” said Olis Simmons, executive director of Youth Uprising, directly after the verdict.

Racial inequality?

The case drew national attention. "The most tragic aspect of this case is that the cost of this police misconduct was a 22-year old father, son, and brother – an unarmed man killed because he allegedly scuffled on a train," said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous in a statement. "The lack of accountability in law enforcement undermines the safety of the community and the integrity of law enforcement."

He cites a Department of Justice survey that found African Americans (4.4 percent) and Hispanics (2.3 percent) were more likely than whites (1.2 percent) to have experienced use of force by police.

Academic observers caution about drawing too many quick conclusions from the case. “In tragic cases like this, where there is no doubt that a life was wrongfully taken, there is a strong desire to look for black-and-white resolutions," says Brett Wilmot, Associate Director of The Ethics Program at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "The public, as opposed to the jury, often seems to want cases like these to be stand-ins for resolving broader social justice complaints," he says.

"It’s kind of a no-win situation: justice in the particular case for a particular defendant demands not looking beyond the facts of the case to broader social issues, while the public interprets the outcome precisely in terms of these broader social issues,” says Mr. Wilmot.

Legal analysts say the verdict may be disappointing, but not surprising. “Anyone who attended the trial other than family members cannot be surprised by this verdict,” says Loyola University’s Levinson. She feels that perhaps the District Attorney overcharged in the case and created too high expectations.

“No one in the courtroom could understand how or why the prosecution called for murder,” she says. “It’s very hard to swallow that an unarmed man was shot in the back and killed.”

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