Angry protesters eye sentencing in transit killing
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – The involuntary manslaughter conviction of a white former transit officer in the death of an unarmed black man set the stage for a sentencing that could be just as explosive as the trial depending on how the judge interprets the verdict.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry has a tremendous amount of discretion in handing down punishment Aug. 6 against Johannes Mehserle – anywhere from probation to 14 years.
A sentence on the low end could further inflame tensions among the hundreds of angry people who took to the streets of Oakland Thursday over what they believe should have been a murder conviction.
Those protesters could find some satisfaction in the way Perry decides to apply a finding by the jury that Mehserle used a gun to commit the crime.
Involuntary manslaughter convictions call for two to four years in prison, but Perry could tack on an additional three to 10 years due to the gun enhancement.
“I think he could get substantial time, by that I mean like six years,” said John Barnett, a defense attorney from Orange County who represented one of four Los Angeles police officers acquitted of beating Rodney King in 1992. “There is going to be a lot of pressure to give him state prison.”
In a handwritten letter released Friday, Mehserle suggested a possible prison term wouldn’t be his only punishment for killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant.
He said he will forever “live, breathe, sleep and not sleep” with the memory of Grant dying on the train platform and “knowing that Mr. Grant should not have been shot.”
Mehserle, 28, testified during his trial that he struggled with Grant and saw him digging in his pocket as officers responded to reports of a fight at a train station.
Fearing Grant may have a weapon, Mehserle said he decided to shock Grant with his Taser but mistakenly pulled his .40-caliber handgun. Grant was shot as he lay face-down.
Prosecutors wanted Johannes Mehserle convicted of murdering Grant.
Instead, jurors decided Mehserle didn’t mean to kill Grant, but his behavior was still so negligent that it was criminal.
The judge has the option of tossing out the gun enhancement, though experts say that seems unlikely because of Perry’s no-nonsense reputation on the bench.
Legal experts also said a sentence of probation appears remote, especially since Mehserle was taken into custody immediately after the verdict and booked into the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, where he will be kept apart from the general population.
“It is probably politically difficult to give him probation,” Santa Clara University law professor Edward Steinman said.
Mehserle was arrested two weeks after the shooting and has remained free after posting $3 million bail in February 2009, meaning he would have no credit for time served if he is sentenced to prison.
Some experts doubt that Mehserle will receive the maximum sentence and question whether an on-duty police officer should be punished with additional state prison time for using a service weapon.
The gun enhancement law was passed to additionally punish armed muggers, robbers and other criminals for endangering lives during their crimes.
Using it in a shooting death that resulted in an involuntary manslaughter conviction is redundant and illogical, said Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg.
“There is a real ambiguity here,” Weisberg said. “This is an odd application of the statute.”
Mehserle could be facing more than state prison time if a civil rights investigation planned by the U.S. Justice Department leads to charges and a federal conviction.
In a move reminiscent of the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles, federal authorities said they will investigate the shooting.
Federal officials stepped into the King case after a state court jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in 1992 of using excessive force, touching off three days of riots, 53 deaths and more than $1 billion in damage.
The two officers convicted of federal civil rights violations in the King beating were each sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. A federal jury acquitted the two other officers.
The verdict against Mehserle enflamed emotions in Oakland, where 30 businesses were damaged and 78 people were arrested for violations that included failure to disperse, vandalism and assaulting a police officer.
Protesters looted an athletic footwear store and ransacked a jewelry shop. The windows of a bank were smashed, fires were set fires in several trash bins, and a small incendiary device was detonated near a police station but caused no damage.
The trial of Mehserle, who resigned from the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency after the shooting, was moved to Los Angeles following rioting in Oakland after Grant was killed. The latest demonstrations appeared to be much less severe, even though police did not immediately release a damage estimate.
In Washington state, vandals smashed the windows of a patrol car parked outside a Tacoma police officer’s home and spray-painted the words “Oscar Grant was here” on the car.
University of California, Berkeley law school professor Erin Murphy said she could understand the outrage of the community, but the verdict seemed a reasonable conclusion to the trial.
“I think the prosecution from the beginning had a major hurdle,” Murphy aid. “Why would a police officer execute someone in public in front of everyone?”