It’s been nearly two years since former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle shot Oscar Grant to death at Oakland’s Fruitvale station. Friday, Mehserle received his sentence: two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Including credit for time served, Mehserle could get out of prison in seven months. Other than probation, this was the shortest possible sentence that could have been administered by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, and it led to demonstrations Friday night in Oakland. After a peaceful rally in front of city hall, protestors marched toward the Fruitvale BART station.
During the march, isolated instances of vandalism broke out in the Eastlake neighborhood. Police officers from several outside agencies corralled and arrested 153 people. I was on the scene Friday night and sat down with KALW’s Holly Kernan to talk about the events. (Transcript after the jump.)
HOLLY KERNAN: So tell us Ali, how did Judge Robert Perry arrive at his verdict?
ALI WINSTON: First of all, Judge Perry decided to throw out the jury’s gun enhancement on the manslaughter conviction, which shows the judge does not believe the prosecutors demonstrated that Mehserle intentionally shot Grant – in fact, Judge Perry told the courtroom that the evidence largely indicated Mehserle’s actions were accidental. By removing the gun enhancement, the maximum sentence Mehserle faced was lowered from 15 years to five years, and Judge Perry ultimately gave him a minimal two-year sentence plus time served.
In all, Johannes Mehserle will do less than two years in prison – and may be released on bail if a motion by his attorney, Michael Rains, succeeds. Here’s what Rains said on Friday about Judge Perry’s findings.
DEFENSE ATTORNEY MICHAEL RAINS: And one finding was that Oscar Grant … by mistake he drew and fired a firearm.
KERNAN: So tell me about some of the controversies in the trial, Ali.
WINSTON: Right, well Judge Perry works in L.A., and that’s one point – the defense believed Mehserle would not receive a fair trial in the Bay Area, so it got moved down south. Also, Judge Perry refused to allow testimony about Mehserle’s prior use of force incidents, yet he did allow Mehserle’s attorney Michael Rains to publicly review Oscar Grant’s criminal history.
KERNAN: I understand the judge made some pointed statements about the conduct of Oscar Grant and his friends on the night of his death
WINSTON: He did. Judge Perry said that Grant and his friends, as well as other BART officers, were responsible for the initial trouble – they allegedly got into a fight on the BART train. The Associated Press quoted Perry as having said, “All of these people share some responsibility.” And these remarks really upset some of Oscar Grant’s family and supporters. One of Grant’s friends stormed out of the courtroom.
On Friday night, during the demonstrations, I spoke with Jack Heyman, a member of the executive board of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, about the trial. He sees Johannes Mehserle’s sentence as proof that the justice system has an inherent racial bias.
JACK HEYMAN: I think most people here are outraged by the … basically a whitewashing of what happened in this case, where a man was killed, it was videoed, everyone saw it on TV and on YouTube, and the cop gets to walk. And I can’t say that I was surprised, but to have it happen so sudden, really was shocking.
WINSTON: A number of other demonstrators shared Heyman’s view. I spoke with Jabari Shaw, who is a member of ONYX, an advocacy group that helped organize Friday’s rally. Here’s what he had to say.
JABARI SHAW: Look at the two-year sentence. They gave me two years for running from the police. I was on probation for possession and sales of marijuana. When they got me for intent to sell, they actually caught me in the car smoking. But that’s another story. They gave me two years with half time for that … to put my case against up what his is – and his is killing somebody – how could you get half-time for a violent crime?
KERNAN: So, we’ve heard from some people who were outraged by the two-year sentence Johannes Mehserle received. How about the other side?
WINSTON: Well, let me give you an example of how much police have invested in the outcome. One of the largest law enforcement advocacy groups in the state, the Peace Officer’s Research Association for California put up $80,000 for Mehserle’s defense. Police unions and fellow officers have shown their support for Mehserle by holding rallies around the Bay Area. Mehserle’s own family has publicly campaigned for his release through media appearances and by sailing a boat with pro-Mehserle slogans into McCovey Cove during the Giants’ World Series run.
KERNAN: And when the sentence came down, Friday, police seemed like they were ready for practically anything.
WINSTON: That’s right. Aside from OPD, there were more than a dozen law enforcement agencies on the scene. I saw police departments from Fremont and Hayward, as well as officers from Marin County, the Peninsula and as far away as Monterey. It’s going to be interesting to see the bill for police overtime on Friday. After Johannes Mehserle’s involuntary manslaughter conviction came down on July 8, the bill for police response came to $1.2 million – for just that one night.
KERNAN: And Friday night, 153 people were arrested, mostly for unlawful assembly and failure to disperse, right?
WINSTON: Right. Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said incidents of vandalism and assault on police officers prompted him to declare the march a crime scene.
The majority of those arrested were detained for unlawful assembly or failure to disperse – however, many claim no dispersal order was issued and they were not provided an opportunity to leave the scene by Oakland police.
KERNAN: So what’s next in the story of Johannes Mehserle and Oscar Grant?
WINSTON: There is more to come. It’s not clear whether Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley will appeal Mehserle’s two-year sentence. Defense attorney Michael Rains has said he’s looking to free Mehserle on bail. Meanwhile, Oscar Grant’s family has a $50 million civil suit filed against BART. That’s set to go to trial in May – and there is the possibility that the federal Department of Justice will file a civil rights suit against Mehserle, too.