What prison might mean for Johannes Mehserle
on July 15, 2010
Johannes Mehserle won’t be sentenced until later this year, but his involuntary manslaughter conviction for the 2009 death of Oscar Grant could mean he faces up to 14 years in a state prison. Because the notoriety of his crime, the ex-BART police officer could be gravely at risk among other prisoners, but the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has a system to protect high-profile inmates like Mehserle.
A common option is to keep inmates safe and separated from the general population said CDCR spokeswoman Terry Thornton. The CDCR maintains a handful of “sensitive-needs yards” across the state. The Correctional Training Facility in Soledad houses about 2,500 inmates in its sensitive-needs yard, which was established last year.
Correctional Training Facility spokesman Lt. Darren Chamberlain said “sensitive-needs” can mean prisoners who range from celebrities and policemen to ex-gang members, child molesters and a variety of other “socially unacceptable” prisoners.
The threat of violence to such “celebrity” prisoners is very real, said Thornton, although she couldn’t comment specifically on Mehserle’s case. “There are some inmates who are warped enough to want to take them down,” said Thornton. “They think they’ll go down in the history books.”
For example, three years after being found guilty for murdering 17 people, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death by a fellow prisoner in Wisconsin.
If a prisoner could be at risk residing in California, Thornton said the CDCR has the option to transfer an inmate to another state. The Interstate Compact on Corrections makes this possible.
When former San Francisco attorney Robert Noel was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for Diane Whipple’s 2001 dog-mauling death, an interstate transfer was necessary. Like Mehserle’s trial, Noel’s trial received heavy media coverage and was moved to Los Angeles. As an attorney, Noel had been closely involved with the California prison system, representing both inmates and corrections officials in cases that put him at odds with the CDCR or its inmates.
The level of media-attention to his case and legal career led CDCR officials to choose a transfer to Oregon, where he served two years in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
“There was some concern about being near these guys we tore apart [in court],” Noel said in an interview with News21, referring to specific inmates who were on the opposite side of one of his cases. Noel was disbarred in 2007 and now lives in Fairfield, where he works as a baker.
Mehserle’s sentencing was originally scheduled for August 6, but the Oakland Tribune has reported that Judge Robert Perry granted a postponement to allow Mehserle’s attorney prepare. A new date has not been set.
This story was made possible by a collaboration with News21, a national partnership between 12 universities and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative to support in-depth and investigative reporting. You can learn more about UC Berkeley’s News21 newsroom here.
Read our past coverage of the Johannes Mehserle trial on Oakland North here.
Image: A Correctional Training Facility used for housing “sensitive-needs” inmates. Photo courtesy California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
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