On Tuesday, BART settled a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the mother of Oscar Grant for $1.3 million. Grant was shot and killed by former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on a train platform on New Year’s Day 2009. Mehserle was convicted of involuntarily manslaughter in 2010 for Grant’s death.
“No amount of money can bring her son back,” said John Burris, the family’s attorney. “It was really about closing this emotional chapter and making sure Mehserle pays for what he did.”
Last year, Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against BART. Her claim alleged that Mehserle, along with other BART police officers, violated Grant’s constitutional rights.
According to Dale Allen, an attorney hired to defend BART against the suit, Johnson’s claim alleged that the officers had acted with the intent to harm her son. Had the civil suit gone to trial, rather than being settled out of court, a jury would have been asked to decide whether or not Grant was resisting arrest and whether Mehserle had a reason to use his taser, let alone a gun.
The settlement agreement was reached at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco and includes no admission of fault by BART or any of the BART officers named in the suit. “There’s no admission of fault in this case,” said Allen. “Mehserle made a mistake—that’s what the criminal jury convicted him of. He never intended to violate the constitutional rights of Mr. Grant.”
“It was a tragedy for Grant’s family and for Mehserle and his family. It was something that everyone wishes didn’t happen,” continued Allen. “Hopefully this will bring closure.”
In 2010, BART settled with Grant’s now seven-year-old daughter Tatiana for $1.5 million in a separate civil suit. Burris said settlement talks will continue between BART and other parties who filed different civil suits, including Grant’s father and five of Grant’s friends who say they were mistreated by police officers that day on the train platform.
Last November, Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison but he was released in early June due to the time he already served while incarcerated during his trial. Grant’s family, along with some community members, believe Mehserle should have received a harsher conviction and longer sentence. Both the verdict and the sentencing in the Mehserle trial resulted in large protests in Oakland that ended in dozens of arrests. “The Oscar Grant case was a major symbol of police misconduct,” Burris said. “It struck at the heart of the African American community. It caused an emotional eruption, not just here, but everywhere where people followed this case.”
Burris added that it did however prompt positive political engagement in Oakland and that he hopes the issues surrounding Grant’s death will continue to stay in the public consciousness.
“The tragic death of Oscar Grant will remain a painful memory for all of us,” BART Board President Bob Franklin said about the settlement in a written press release issued Tuesday. “While we cannot alter the past, we have been using the lessons learned as a catalyst to change our future.” Franklin said the BART board is continuously working to improve officer standards by providing cultural diversity training and is creating an independent police auditor and citizen review board to monitor police practices.