California transit cop found guilty of manslaughter–not murder

Demonstrators gather in Oakland, California July 8, 2010 to protest the verdict on the case of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle.

[It is important to note that in the history of the United States, many thousands of oppressed and exploited people have been maimed and killed by abusive police.  Yet over this long history, not even one policeman has been charged and convicted of murder, even when overwhelming documentation has been presented to prove the case.  The system has shown it is unwilling and unable to bring an end to these horrifying crimes it commits against the people.  What must the people do to succeed in their prolonged struggle for justice?-ed.]

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES | Thu Jul 8, 2010 11:15pm EDT

A white former transit police officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter on Thursday in the videotaped shooting death of an unarmed black man last year that triggered riots in Oakland, California.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other civic leaders had called for public restraint as police braced for renewed violence sparked by the Los Angeles jury’s verdict, but protests in Oakland after the decision were calm.

The panel of four men and eight women deliberated for about six hours over two days before reaching their decision, which indicated they essentially believed defense arguments that the shooting on a train platform in Oakland was a tragic accident rather than the intentional act of a rogue cop.

The defendant in the racially charged trial, Johannes Mehserle, 28, testified that he mistakenly drew his gun instead of his electric Taser and shot Oscar Grant, 22, while trying to subdue him during a confrontation on New Year’s Day 2009.

But prosecutors, who sought a conviction for second-degree murder, said Mehserle had “lost all control” and shot Grant on purpose because he thought Grant was resisting arrest.

Jurors can render an involuntary manslaughter conviction if they believe the defendant lacked an intent to kill but engaged in conduct so grossly negligent that it amounts to a crime.

It generally carries a sentence of two to four years in prison, but the jury also accepted a sentencing “enhancement” for Mehserle’s use of a handgun in the commission of a crime.

“We are outraged that the jury did not find guilty of murder in a case that is so egregiously excessive and mishandled,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Mehserle, who had been free on $3 million bond, showed no reaction as the verdict was read and was immediately taken into custody. The former police officer for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system faces sentencing on August 6.

FAMILY FURY

Relatives of Grant, a young father who worked as a grocery store butcher, reacted with outrage.

“My son was murdered, and the law hasn’t held the officer accountable the way he should be,” Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, shouted outside the courthouse.

Police in Oakland, east of San Francisco, had been on alert in preparation for civil unrest, and Schwarzenegger had assured the city’s mayor that the state would help maintain order.

Demonstrations were planned in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, where many workers crowded into BART trains and clogged roads on Thursday after being cleared to leave work early in anticipation of potential violence.

But downtown Oakland’s streets were quiet Thursday evening, with about 1,000 people gathered in a peaceful protest. Many expressed anger, with a huge banner strung on a traffic light pole that read “Oakland says Guilty.”

“It’s unbelievable this guy is getting less jail time than someone who wrote a bad check,” said Barbara Plantiko, a 41-year-old immigration lawyer at the protest. “I just don’t buy he got confused. I don’t think that it was an accident.”

Anger over the slaying flared after video shot by onlookers and shown widely over the Web and television in January 2009 showed Grant lying face down when he was shot in the back.

Mehserle was seen holstering his gun immediately afterward and putting his hands on his head as in disbelief.

The killing unleashed charges of police brutality and a night of civil unrest in Oakland, where people smashed store windows and set cars on fire and police made over 100 arrests.

The judge in the case, which was moved to Los Angeles due to heavy pretrial publicity in the Bay Area, held there was too little evidence to show the killing was premeditated, ruling out a first-degree murder conviction.

Had he been convicted of second-degree murder, Mehserle would have faced 15 years to life in prison. The jury could alternatively have found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter or acquitted him entirely.

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