On Friday morning, one of the final chapters of a tragic high-profile Bay Area story will be written.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge is set to sentence former BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle on Friday for the shooting death of passenger Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station platform on January 1, 2009.
The incident was captured on numerous video recorders and disseminated throughout the world. The video sparked widespread protests and rioting throughout Oakland in the days following the shooting. Two weeks later, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office charged Mehserle with murder; the trial was later moved to Los Angeles over concerns the former officer could not receive a fair trial in the Bay Area.
Mehserle is white, while Grant was black. The controversy over the killing took on racial overtones and unleashed long-held animosity between many city residents and law enforcement.
When the jury convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter with a weapons enhancement — and acquitted him of murder — July 8, protests again broke out in downtown Oakland, ultimately involving the arrest of 78 individuals.
The former officer, now 28, has been jailed at a Downtown Los Angeles prison since the day of the verdict, awaiting sentencing for the crime.
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Judge Robert Perry, who presided over the trial, will sentence Mehserle, who could be sentenced to anything from probation to a maximum of 14 years in state prison.
The involuntary manslaughter verdict angered members of Grant’s family and prosecutors, who argued that Mehserle murdered Grant when he drew his firearm and shot the unarmed 23-year-old father once in the back, killing him. Mehserle’s defense contended the action was a mistake and that the former officer instead meant to Tase Grant.
The jury agreed, in part, with the defense argument that the shooting was accidental when it came to a verdict of involuntary manslaughter (murder and voluntary manslaughter both require an intent to kill).
Legal experts said the weapons enhancement charge was a compromise solution for the jury. But while the prosecution argues the charge shows the jury thought Mehserle used his gun on purpose, the defense has countered that it is not possible that the jury found Mehserle intended to shoot Grant in the back from a distance of just a few feet but not kill him.
Instead, defense attorney Michael Rains says, the jury believed the shooting was an accident but misapplied the gun enhancement. How Judge Perry untangles the meaning of the verdict is central to the severity of the sentence he will hand down Friday.
Dueling public relations campaigns
The families of Grant and Mehserle have undertaken very public and bold steps at soliciting public support before Friday’s scheduled sentencing.
Grant’s family has urged Perry to seek the maximum sentence for Mehserle, a 14-year stint behind bars.
The family has drawn support from the International Longshoreman’s Worker’s Union, whose members shut down operations at the Ports of San Francisco and Oakland for one day in September in a public display in favor of the maximum sentence.
“We want justice,” said Christopher McKay, an International Longshore and Warehouse Union worker. “We want [Mehserle] to serve his time just like anybody else would serve their time — to the fullest extent of the law.”
The union’s organized community events, put together to draw attention to the shooting, have the blessing of the Grant family, who said they would be in the courtroom Friday morning for the sentencing.
Meanwhile, the family of Mehserle is waging its own campaign to urge Perry to go in another direction: being lenient towards the former police officer.
After nearly 18 months of silence from Mehserle and his supporters, friends and family members have initiated an aggressive and highly visible outreach campaign to get “his side of the story” in the public domain.
During the San Francisco Giants’ playoff run, Mehserle’s father, Todd Mehserle, who sells sailing equipment for yachts, has paraded a large ship with “Free Mehserle” banners during home games in McCovey Cove. The move drew attention — including from the Fox Sports baseball telecasts — to the high profile case and the upcoming sentencing date.
Last week, Mehserle gave his first interview to KTVU Television from the Los Angeles County Jail, telling reporter Rita Williams that he expects to walk out of the court “a free man” on Friday.
“The decision I made was to Tase Mr. Grant, it wasn’t to shoot him, and I know that,” he said.
Sentencing is set for 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Superior Court says that the few seats available to the public will be distributed via a lottery held at 8 a.m. outside the courthouse.
In court filings, the former officer’s defense attorney has asked Perry for a new trial, citing a Kentucky case where a police officer whose Taser was configured for a dominant hand cross-draw — just like Mehserle’s, and unlike other gun-Taser confusion cases presented at trial — mistook his gun for his Taser. Perry will rule on that motion before Friday’s sentencing.