Almost 20 years after the trial in the beating of Rodney King, eyes across the US are once again fixed on a Los Angeles courtroom for a trial involving police misconduct – this time with rare murder charges for an on-duty police officer.
Opening statements began Thursday in the trial of former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle for the New Year’s Day 2009 killing of Oscar Grant on an Oakland, Calif. train platform. Legal analysts say the trial's outcome will provide insight into the latest legal thinking on the issues of video evidence and juries' attitudes toward police brutality.
“You bet this is on the national radar,” says former Maryland police officer Dr. Tod Burke, now a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia. “Police departments and communities across the country will be watching this carefully for the clues it gives about many of the top issues in law enforcement.”
Mr. Grant was among a group of men who were detained after a fight on a BART train. Fellow passengers recorded the shooting and its aftermath on cellphones, and the video was viewed widely on TV and the Internet.
The video shows Grant lying face down, being restrained by officers, when Mr. Mehserle shoots him once in the back. Mehserle's defense attorney has said that the officer meant to shoot Grant with an electronic stun gun, but mistakenly grabbed his pistol.
Mr. Burke says the country is wondering how far it has come since the case of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King in 1991, who became known worldwide when the video of police beating him was played globally. After the acquittal of the police officers that followed, the most expensive riots in US history engulfed Los Angeles.
Legal experts say they will be watching this trial and what it says about how juries approach police brutality cases.
“Juries tend to be sympathetic to police officers acting in the line of duty, and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues in this case,” says Professor Kenneth Williams of Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He says that just last month a jury in Houston acquitted a police officer who shot an unarmed suspect under similar circumstances. "Most legal analysts will be looking to see if that trend continues,” says Mr. Williams.
Also, Williams is keen to see whether the jury will believe the officer made a mistake, and if so, if it will convict him of murder or a lesser crime – or any at all. “It should be interesting to see if the jury will actually convict the police officer of murder or will they convict him of a lesser crime, such as manslaughter?” he asks.
The ubiquity of cellphones benefits this case, Burke says.
"We saw Rodney King getting beaten, but we don’t know if he said anything to ease or provoke the police,” he says. “The BART incident videos could produce many lessons for both communities and police departments.”
How the judge keeps this trial under control is another issue that many will be watching. The trial has already been moved from Alameda County, near San Francisco, to Los Angeles to escape Bay-area publicity.
“The judge is this case is serious about keeping the courtroom under control – he doesn’t want this case to turn into the new trial of the century,” says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Already, she says, “he has imposed gag orders and banned the use of cell phones and communication devices in the courtroom.”
The case has a lot riding on it, including the reputation and goodwill built up by law enforcement, says Rande Matteson, who teaches criminal justice at Saint Leo University in San Antonio. Often the public sees an event like the killing of Grant and loses trust in the law enforcement community, he says.