The Johannes Mehserle PR Campaign–From Killer to Happy Dad

Supporters show family photos, wage rallies and create websites to drum up sympathy before sentencing.

By Julianne Hing Aug 09, 2010

The murder trial for slain East Bay resident Oscar Grant is over, and the long wait until the November 8 sentencing date is underway. But supporters of Grant’s killer, ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle, are working a diligent campaign to remake Mehserle’s image and keep his name in the news.

A Los Angeles jury found the 28-year-old Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in July for shooting and killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant while he lay face down on a train platform on New Year’s Day 2009. The case was unprecedented: Grant’s killing was caught on multiple cell phone videos and sparked several days of protest in the East Bay days after it happened. Mehserle was charged with murder, a first for a Bay Area officer involved in an on-duty shooting.

Last Friday, Mehserle’s defense dispatched a "close friend" to speak to San Francisco FOX affiliate KTVU about the Johannes Mehserle we don’t know: the father of a newborn son, the aggrieved and remorseful man.

"He’s not a monster, he’s not a murderer," Mehserle’s friend told KTVU, his image obscured in silhouette and his voice intentionally disguised to protect his anonymity. "He’s not a racist, he’s not an out of control, uh, raged cop." Something about the weepy segment feels off: Mehserle’s friend hides his identity because he fears for his safety, but airs in a public forum private family experiences and photos. The interview is confessional in tone, but there are no new revelations about the case.

The exclusive interview was accompanied by photos of Mehserle in happier days, with his pregnant girlfriend tailgating outside a ball game, with his newborn son at the hospital, and later smiling proudly with his infant son strapped to his chest in a baby carrier.

Mehserle’s friend goes on, dutifully checking off the list of all the public criticisms the ex-BART cop received and responding to each of them. Mehserle’s friend insists that Mehserle was tortured by what he did, and that it was his attorneys who sent him fleeing to Nevada before charges were filed. (Mehserle had said before that it was death threats that sent him out of the state.) Mehserle’s friend insists, too, that Mehserle would break down in tears all the time, that the ex-cop could be laughing one moment and then get a distracted, far-off look in his eye.

"I remember saying people have no idea what Johannes was going through emotionally," the friend told KTVU. "No idea the numerous times he broke down and was in hysterics and couldn’t even speak because he was crying so hard."

Mehserle’s father Todd told KTVU last week at the second Mehserle support rally: "He’s in the wrong place. We love him dearly. He grew up to be anybody he wanted to be and he chose public service. And this is his thanks for making a mistake. It’s very tragic and unfortunate." Mehserle himself has spoken out. He wrote a letter to the public to try to clear his name while awaiting the jury’s verdict. Grant’s family rejected the letter as a publicity stunt, calling it a "ploy" to influence the judge into granting Mehserle a more lenient sentence.

Mehserle’s supporters have created a website for him, The homepage copy reads, "Sometimes there’s justice…" on the left side of the screen, and "Sometimes there’s just us," next to a photo of Mehserle with family. But Mehserle isn’t exactly alone. While Mehserle awaits his sentencing from inside an LA County jail, his Bay Area supporters have already staged two rallies, one in Walnut Creek and a second in San Jose. A third is planned for August 15 in the Bay Area suburb of Dublin.

Mehserle faces anywhere from five to 14 years behind bars. However, Mehserle’s defense is expected to challenge the complicated verdict; if a disputed gun enhancement is thrown out, Mehserle could get off with just probation and no jail time.