Verdict in Johannes Mehserle trial: Involuntary manslaughter

A crowd begins to gather in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Photo by Dara Kerr

A crowd begins to gather in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Photo by Dara Kerr

Updated 11:40 pm

After a tense wait in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a Los Angeles jury has found the former BART police officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the January, 2009, death of Oscar Grant. Mehserle was accused of having shot the 22-year-old Grant in the back as he lay face-down on the platform of Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station after an altercation broke out on a train. Mehserle pleaded not guilty, claiming that he mistook his gun for his Taser stun gun.

According to reports from the courthouse in Los Angeles, the involuntary manslaughter verdict, along with Meshlere’s additional conviction for the use of a gun in Grant’s death, could carry a sentence of 5 to 14 years.

The other options before the jury included acquittal, voluntary manslaughter, which would have carried a penalty of 3 to 11 years, and second-degree murder, which would have carried a penalty of 40 years to life.

Last week, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry ruled that Mehserle could not be convicted of first-degree murder, saying that evidence in the trial proved that Mehserle did not plan to kill Grant by shooting him once in the back.

As of 4:30 pm, a small crowd of 50 to 100 people had gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. As word of the verdict spread via cell phone, Oakland resident Amber Royal, who said she lives in Grant’s neighborhood, burst into tears. “A man is killed in our city and he gets off with 6 years or whatever, that’s bullshit to me,” she said.

Nearby, another protester yelled “How involuntary is the pull of a trigger?”

Protesters carry a banner on Broadway. Photo by Dara Kerr.

By 6:30 pm, the crowd had grown larger, and riot police were present throughout the downtown, but the crowd at Frank Ogawa Plaza remained peaceful. Protesters filled Broadway from 15th to 12th, the majority of them simply chatting and taking pictures, although several people standing on crates delivered speeches to the crowd.

Several members of the crowd carried signs with slogans like “Oakland says guilty,” “Jail killer cops,” and “Justice for Oscar Grant.”

By 9:00 pm things had taken a turn for the less peaceful. There were reports of several dozen people breaking into and looting a Foot Locker at 14th and Broadway.

A few protesters set off smoke bombs, threw bottles and set trashcans on fire.

The Oakland Police Department ordered a crowd of approximately 300 people at the corner of 14th and Broadway to disperse around 9:15 pm.

By 10 pm police offers had begun to make arrests and to marshall the protesters towards 17th Street.

The 19th Street BART station was temporarily shut down due to civil unrest, and there were additional reports of protesters lighting fires and smashing windows.

At a 10:40 pm press conference Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts announced that the OPD had made approximately 50 arrests and that he expected that number to double by the end of the night. He estimated that 75-100 protesters remained on the streets, and that approximately 800 people had gathered in downtown Oakland throughout the day.

Batts said that Oakland police officers had been instructed to allow peaceful protest and expressed disappointment with the few people who caused violence. “This city is not the wild wild west. We will not tolerate this activity,” he said.

Batts said that officers had used smoke — not teargas — to disperse a crowd earlier in the evening at 20th Street and Broadway after protesters threw bottles at officers’ heads.

Reports of damages stretched as far north on Broadway as the Whole Foods at 27th Street and the 7-11 at Harrison and Vernon.

A window was broken and a display case of sake bottles had been dragged out into the street at the Japanese restaurant Ozumo at Broadway and Grand Avenue. “It’s a damn shame. I was at the earlier peaceful protest and I was proud of Oakland for maintaining peace,” said Essie Tesfahun, who lives nearby. “This doesn’t feel like Oakland.”

Protesters set off M-80s, leading to loud concussive sounds that echoed throughout the downtown, and set trash bins and the contents of dumpsters on fire, creating a chaotic scene and filling the air with the smell of burning plastic.

At one point, as the police surrounded the protesters on Broadway near 16th Street, attempting to squeeze protesters together in order to arrest them, all the lights went out for several minutes. The power returned and went off again several times that night.

In the downtown area, protesters painted messages in black spraypaint on several buildings. “Say no to work, yes to looting” was painted on wall of the Bank of the West on Broadway where its glass doors had been shattered and glass window broken in. On a boarded-up building across the street, someone had painted “Oakland is our amusement park tonight!”

Law enforcement and city officials had sought to prevent a repeat of the riots that erupted in the wake of the killing in January, 2009, when a protest march became violent. Demonstrators burned cars and trashcans and broke shop windows. Over 100 people were arrested. Several smaller riots erupted throughout the month of January, while Grant’s family pleaded for the violence to end. In November, 2009, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson granted a change of venue for Mehserle’s trial to move to Los Angeles, ruling that the violent protests and media attention in Oakland would not allow Mehserle a fair trial here.

Last week Mayor Ron Dellums and Police Chief Anthony Batts sent out community and merchant information bulletins to help people prepare, recommending that merchants secure their buildings and that people park their cars in secure locations.

In a joint statement issued Thursday, Batts, Dellums and the members of the city council urged peace: “We are united as a city and a community, and we are dedicated to ensuring the safe expressions of emotions during this difficult time. We understand that the community is grieving, and we are in this together. We will get through this together. There are many people ready to help begin the healing process and they have opened their doors to allow us to express our grief in a healthy manner that will not endanger our safety, livelihood or reputation as a city. We are asking for the community to come together, look out for one another and stay safe. We will not tolerate destruction or violence. We live here, and we love Oakland.”

City officials coordinated a peaceful citywide gathering at Frank Ogawa Plaza at 6 pm today that featured youth speakers, music, poetry and other ways for community members to express their feelings. More information is available at OaklandNet.com.

The groups Youth UpRising and the Urban Peace Movement held a 5 pm non-violent community event at the Youth Uprising office at 8711 MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland.

Other locations where youth are encouraged to gather to peacefully express their thoughts about the verdict include:

* East Bay Asian Youth Center 2025 East 12th St 533-1092

* Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center 7701 Krause Avenue 615-5755

* Mosswood Recreation Center 3612 Webster Street 597-5038

* Attitudinal Healing Connection 3278 West St. @ 33rd Street, 652-5530

Additional reporting by Dara Kerr. The 11:40 pm update concludes Oakland North’s coverage for Thursday, July 8. Stay tuned to Oakland North for more breaking news updates tomorrow as well as more detailed coverage of the protests and community forums that took place on Thursday.

Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.

Connect with Oakland North on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.


21 Comments

  1. Peggy

    I feel so bad for Oscar’s family and friends…I knew that this jerk would probably get off, but I was hoping and praying that this time justice would prevail…it’s just so unfair!!! There is no justice in our system.

  2. Tsu Do Nimh

    The cop was found guilty, albeit for involuntary manslaughter. He did NOT get off, I just don’t understand the comment before me.

  3. siri Margerin

    that was NOT involuntary manslaughter, that is the problem. that was a man with a gun and a “badge” shooting a kid in the back. a kid lying on his stomach with his hands behind his back. that was cowardice and murder. it would have been if I did it. 2-4 years is a hell of light sentence.

  4. marco

    This is a fair verdict. This comment from Peggy is so wrong. How all of a sudden when a black man is shot by a police officer there are protests in the streets, yet when thugs are killing black men in the streets every single day there is not a sound from these protesters, and actually nobody even gives information to help find the killers based on “no snitching”.

  5. Do Know

    Involuntary Manslaughter is barely a conviction for pulling a trigger… we’ll see if he gets a sentence or serves any prison time at all. If he doesn’t, then that would be the definition of “getting off” in this case. It’s not just about guilty or innocent, and it’s not about just punishing this man. The question is: how much is the life of a young black man worth in Oakland? If he doesn’t serve any sentence at all, is that how the justice system sees the worth of someone’s life?

  6. Layogenic

    Tsu Do Nimh: While I agree 5-14 years of somebody’s life isn’t an inconsequential punishment, Oscar Grant had ALL of his taken away. To many people, that could be considered getting off lightly.

  7. marco

    First of all get your facts straight — it’s not 2-4 years that is the possible sentence for the crime he was convicted of, its 5-14 years. See: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/07/08/BAM21EBDOD.DTL&tsp=1

  8. Layogenic

    marco: 2-4 years is the usual time for involuntary manslaughter, so it’s not an ignorant supposition. 5-14 years is because of the 3-10 year addendum a judge can add because the crime involved a firearm. A firearm twice as heavy, a different colour and with a different safety mechanism than a taser, natch.

  9. tensegrity

    Looking at these comments here, it certainly does not bode well for the city of Oakland. People are angry and hurting, yet it is always easier to take out our pain on other people than do deal with it constructively. All we know is fighting and conflict. Sad. It’s *our* own violence: violent actions, violent words, that put our youth on the streets running out of control. It’s *our* violence that puts guns on the belts of police officers. It’s always blame someone else. Grieving people blaming cops. Cops blaming kids. White people blaming blacks. Black people blaming whites. There is a lack of leadership in our cities and communities, but why do we need leaders to tell us to do right and to act civilly toward each other? If people can’t be reasonable and fair to each other here, then when and where can we be? Where does it end? Where does it start? Maybe it starts here. Let’s start looking at ourselves and checking our own behavior before we act and react with violence in our minds and hands.

  10. Sarah

    Regardless of whether anyone thinks it’s a fair sentence, I hope everyone can agree that this has opened up a opportunity for discussion, not a riot. Criminal action only justifies further police misconduct.

  11. spy

    This is the BART management problem. Bart polices are allowed to work long hours. Although, the contract stated they are required to have a 10 hrs rest period but many of them work twenty hours straight. Currently, each of them are working 12 hrs miminum. How can someone stay focus when working on duty for twenty hours? Especially the person is carrying a gun. It is too dangerous and someone should follow the rule so each of them can be rested so this kind of maybe accidently will not happen again.

  12. Thomas

    @Sarah – Nothing “justifies” further police misconduct.
    @tensegrity – It’s really not our that puts guns on the belts of police officers. The State puts guns on the belts of police officers.

  13. Sarah

    @Thomas Ah, if only it that were true for most people. The more people you have running around afraid for their lives, the more they will accept human rights violations committed in the name of their “safety.” And every citizen is responsible for the condition of the State; it is every bit our responsibility as people in Oakland, California, the United States, Earth for what goes on. Take your power, don’t blame other people.

  14. Let’s step back for some perspective. Yes, Mehserle didn’t get the murder verdict that Grant’s family wanted and wants. But – he was convicted on involuntary manslaughter. A white cop was convicted on involuntary manslaughter for shooting a black man in the course of an arrest. That is world-shaking to me. I can remember a world in which a white man (not even a cop) could shoot a black man to death, and there wouldn’t even be a trial. Try anywhere in the Deep South, in the 1950s. The world never changes as much or as fast as we want; but it changes.

    And tensegrity is absolutely right – the only behavior each of us can ever control is our own. If we want people to be civil to us, we must be civil to them. And the best way to get respect is to give respect.

  15. Don

    The law is very clear… in order to prove voluntary manslaughter or 2nd degree murder, the prosecution must prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the defendant acted with specific intent to kill the victim. Clearly, there was not sufficient evidence to definitively prove Mesherle’s state of mind one way or the other. Surely Oscar Grant’s family saw this as the testimony unfolded, and perhaps if John Burris had done a little better job as their “advisor,” he could have better prepared them for the inevitability of this verdict. Now you can certainly believe (as I do) that the sentencing will not fit the crime, but that’s an argument for stronger sentencing laws and guidelines. It’s certainly not reason to deride the jury’s decision as unjust as Burris and others have done today. It’s apparent that they followed the law as it was written and convicted a guilty man of a horrible crime.

  16. Ken

    The real injustice isn’t that Mesrhle got a fair trial. It’s that minorities regularly don’t get a fair trial. Time to right the latter injustice, not go executing a policeman for slipping up in his job (UN-intentionally)

    if you want blood feuds, go live in Iraq or Cambodia or most other countries. we too will get there eventually.

  17. TC

    OK YALL TALK ABOUT A FAIR TRIAL YOU DID SEE THE VIDEO RIGHT GUILTY SHOULD HAVE WHENT TO JAIL

  18. BW

    Fair Trial, Fair interpretation of the law, Fair verdict. Sorry for the Victim’s family, but a Murder conviction would have been flat wrong. The Victim put himself in a position to get tazed and ended up dying as a result of an accident. Not his fault, but still he was the victim of an accident. Unfortunately, he could have avoided the situation altogether and did not.

  19. Tsu Do Nimh

    I agree with the notion that cops here and in the US react aggressively, particularly when young Blacks and Latinos are concerned, and that this has to be stopped. It is racist and it costs people their lives.
    At the same time, I also strongly feel that Mehersle did not murder Oscar Grant. And yes I have seen the videos, who hasn’t? I don’t think it was premeditated and I also feel very strongly that he made a huge mistake (gun instead of taser). Involuntary manslaughter was the right verdict and with the firearm tagged on to it, he faces 5-14 years. That is good, it sends a strong message to cops everywhere that you cannot get away with such mistakes, you need to take care. People on the streets are over- reacting in many ways, especially those that are burning and looting. I also registered my protest yesterday but it was about the unfair targeting of young people of color. The sooner we can have common understanding about this, the quicker we can move forward constructively.

  20. For those of you who may have missed it or…are just to ignorant to care…he DID get convicted. He WAS found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and quite frankly that’s about the best we could have hoped for in this situation.

    Yes, the kid was on the ground, hands behind his back in a submissive position and there was no reason for the guy to have pulled his gun OR his taser.

    NO THEY WERE NEVER GOING TO CONVICT THIS GUY OF ANYTHING MORE THAN MANSLAUGHTER AT THE VERY VERY BEST.

    Some of you need to get your legal definitions up to snuff before you go saying certain things. This guy did not get up and say “I’m going to kill me someone today”. He didn’t see Oscar on the train and decide “You know, he’s going to die today”.

    During the course of performing his job he made what can easily be considered a mistake (even though I don’t think it was one) and pulled the wrong weapon. Tragic accident? Yes. First or second degree murder? No.

    My other question is simple. Would anyone care if this was for some reason a white cop that shot a little white kid? I notice you don’t see many “police brutality” cases where the cop and the victim are same race? Do they have to be different races in order for anyone to care? If so…that’s messed up.

  21. VER

    This is just another case where the officials hire those weak, TV inspired cops to protect them. Damn if they are protecting us. I’m sure Gov. Arnold approved of the verdict.

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