Former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle was released from a Los Angeles jail shortly after midnight on Monday, after having served a total of 365 days in the Los Angeles Central Jail. This included his time served while incarcerated during his trial and while awaiting sentencing.
Mehserle was convicted in July, 2010, for involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of unarmed BART passenger Oscar Grant on New Years Eve 2009. Last November, he was sentenced to two years behind bars. The trial prompted protests in Oakland when Mehserle was not convicted of a more serious charge or given a longer sentence.
On Friday, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry ruled that Mehserle should be released on June 13 because of his credits for time served and good behavior. He was given one day of “good time” credit for each day served, for a total of 366 days of credits.
According to Luis Patino, a communications spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state considers Mehserle’s sentence fully served. “We have no leeway to hold someone beyond the time that have served their full sentence,” Patino said. “Under the law, he served his full sentence.”
Patino said state law considers Mehserle’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter a nonviolent offense, which made him eligible for receiving credit for good behavior while incarcerated. According to Patino, the largest reduction in sentencing time that a person with Mehserle’s type of conviction can get is fifty percent.
“This a very common thing that happens with everyone,” Patino said, and stressed that Mehserle’s case “is not early release.”
Jonathon Simon, a law professor who specializes in criminal justice at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, agrees with Patino. “It is not surprising that Mehserle was released earlier than the formal sentence announced,” said Simon.
Simon said that if the had jury convicted Mehserle of second degree murder—meaning that if the jury had found that he killed Grant either intentionally or with extreme recklessness—he would not be eligible for parole for at least 15 years. But because Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, which means that a jury found that he did not intend to kill Grant, a determinate sentence of as little as three years was available.
Also, Simon said, California has a gun enhancement law that could have added five or more years to Mehserle’s sentence because he killed Grant with a gun, but the judge chose not to apply it.
“His case exemplifies how arbitrary criminal law can be,” Simon said referring to how a small difference in the verdict can make a big difference in time served.
“I am sympathetic to the feeling that many others have that Mehserle’s short sentence was incommensurate with his culpability,” Simon said. “Part of the function of the criminal law is to signal community outrage at a course of conduct, and that seems to have failed here.”
This morning in L.A., two dozen protesters organized in front of the criminal courts building to continue protesting what they say is an unfair release date. This follows Sunday’s protests in Oakland, when Grant’s mother, 7-year-old daughter and several hundred other protesters marched from the Fruitvale BART station to City Hall. Messages from “Justice for Oscar Grant” to “Jail Killer Cops” were chanted and written on signs to protest what many say was a lenient sentence.
At yesterday’s protest, Jack Bryson, the father of the two young men who were with Oscar Grant on the BART platform the night he was shot, said it’s not fair that Mehserle will be coming home to his family. “We still have to go to Oscar’s grave site,” he said.
Mehserle’s supporters say his sentence was fair and he has served enough time. Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which helped pay for Mehserle’s legal fund defense, said that anyone, whether a peace officer or a private citizen, would have received the same sentence. “Mehserle was a former police officer, but not while he was on the stand,” Cottingham said. “He received no favoritism for his previous position.”
Cottingham said Mehserle’s sentence was fairly handed down by a court that realized Grant’s death was a horrible accident. “A life has been taken that can’t be given back,” he said. “One incident has damaged two families.”
According to Cottingham, Mehserle will serve the remainder of his two-year sentence on parole for the next 13 months. “He’s not coming out a free man,” Cottingham said. It will be up to the state to decide where Mehserle will live and serve out his parole.
You can read Oakland North’s complete coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial here.