Ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle, charged with murder for shooting and killing the unarmed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, has been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. It is the least serious of the three charges against him and comes with a sentence of 2-4 years, though he can now petition for probation alone.
Mehserle, a 28-year-old two-year vet with the BART police force, shot the 22-year-old Grant in the back while he lay face down on an outdoor BART train platform in Oakland. The shooting was caught on cell phone video that was widely distributed that night, igniting several nights of protests in Oakland. City officials have been frantically preparing for months for large scale protests that are now expected in the city tonight.
Merhserle maintained throughout his trial that the shooting was a tragic accident, and that he meant to pull and fire his Taser, rather than his gun. Mehserle claimed that he confused the two weapons and that Grant and several friends who were also detained with him that night presented a dangerous threat to the police as they resisted arrest. The prosecution argued that it’s inconceivable that Mehserle could have accidentally fired his gun and that Grant had been fully complaint with police orders, thus presenting no threat.
The verdict means that jurors however were convinced that Mehserle had no intention of killing Grant that night, and thus that it was not a deliberate act when he shot Grant in the back. A murder conviction demands establishing an intent to kill. Instead, jurors believed that Merhserle was criminally negligent and acted with, as the law says, “reckless disregard for human life.” Mehserle also faced charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. This was the first case in California history in which a police officer was charged with murder for an on-duty shooting.
Mehserle faces possible jail time, at least two but no more than four years for the involuntary manslaughter charge alone. Mehserle could also petition the judge for probation alone.
However, the jury also attached a gun enhancement to the verdict, which carries with it additional jail time of two, four, or even ten years. But gun enhancements require that the defendant has fired a gun intentionally. These contradictory convictions–involuntary manslaughter, signaling an accidental killing, and the gun enhancement–raise the possibility of an appeal from the defense attorney.
People in Oakland are gathering at 14th and Broadway at 6 p.m. Pacific time this evening, and the Alameda County DA is scheduled to give a press conference outside the courthouse soon. In Los Angeles, supporters of Oscar Grant will be assembling at Leimert Park in South Central.
People inside the courtroom have reported that Mehserle was led away in handcuffs after the verdict was announced.
Photo credit: AP/Cathleen Allison