The Lesson of Mehserle’s Trial? Justice is Found in Prevention

While the Grant family pursues a federal case and readies for a civil suit, the community needs to think about prevention.

By Julianne Hing Nov 08, 2010

Former Oakland transit cop Johannes Mehserle received a two-year prison sentence Friday for the killing of unarmed black man Oscar Grant. It was the minimum punishment possible after Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter this summer and sets him up for parole in just months.

The news enraged Oakland, where 152 were arrested on Friday night after hundreds gathered downtown to protest Mehserle’s sentence. Even in communities of color already well acquainted with police brutality and the criminal justice system’s endemic inequities, Mehserle’s sentence seemed startlingly light.

"He got nothing! He got nothing!" complained Grant’s mom Wanda Johnson as she burst into the hallway after the judge read the sentencing, according NBC Bay Area

Grant’s family is pressing the Department of Justice to take up the case in earnest. This summer the DOJ’s civil rights division opened an investigation into the shooting the day after the Los Angeles jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, which was the least serious charge he faced.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry threw out a gun enhancement charge that could have added as much as 10 years in prison because he said that the court mistakenly confused jurors into thinking they could convict Mehserle of both the gun allegation and involuntary manslaughter. The jury found Mehserle guilty of using his gun intentionally, even though it convicted Mehserle of an accidental killing. Mehserle’s defense team argued that the conviction was contradictory, and Perry agreed, conceding that his jury instructions had been misleading.

Perry also said that if the jury had found Mehserle guilty of the harshest charge of second-degree murder, he would have thrown their findings out because it was clear to him that the killing was not intentional. California’s sentencing guidelines give judges broad discretion based on a crime’s relative severity. Mehserle faced a two, three or four year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter alone, and a maximum total of fourteen years behind bars.

In addition to throwing out the gun enhancement, Perry granted Mehserle double credit for time served. As of Friday Mehserle had been in jail for 146 days. CBS reported that Mehserle’s attorney Michael Rains estimated that with 292 days knocked off his sentence and anticipated good behavior credit, Mehserle is expected to be up for parole in seven or eight months.

During the summer trial, Grant’s mom Johnson was a constant courtroom presence, often weeping inconsolably as she sat with other court observers during testimony that dissected the violent last minutes of her son’s life. On Friday, she struggled through a victim impact statement that she and four other Grant family members read before the judge. She pleaded with Perry to give Mehserle the maximum 14-year sentence. "I live every day of my life in pain," she said, California Beat reported. "The very people who are supposed to protect and serve…took his life."

Mehserle also spoke on Friday and apologized for the first time directly to the Grant family. The former BART officer shot Grant in the back while the 22-year-old father lay face down on the train platform. Mehserle testified during the trial that he did not mean to shoot Grant, and mistakenly pulled his gun when he meant to pull his Taser.

"I did not become an officer to take a life, but because it gave me the opportunity to protect and save lives," Mehserle said through his own tears, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. "I pray the public can understand that police officers are also human."

"I with all my heart have been and will always be sorry for taking Oscar from them," Mehserle told the courtroom, NBC Bay Area reported. "I pray one day they will find it in their hearts to forgive me."

He will likely have to pray for a long time.

The disappointing sentencing comes at the end of a roller coaster ride of a murder trial. This was the first time in California history that a police officer had been charged with homicide for an on-duty killing. When Mehserle was convicted in July, John Burris, the Grant family’s attorney, acknowledged that it was unprecedented that a white police officer had been convicted for killing a black man.

But it hardly takes the sting away from Mehserle’s sentence. Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson compared the punishment to the prison sentence NFL player Michael Vick got: "If a man goes to prison for killing a dog and he gets four years, then of course two years is not enough," the Christian Science Monitor reported Johnson said.

Criminal prosecutions are a necessary salve for families who want personal accountability for their deepest losses and courts remain the most public venue to demand justice for police officers’ violent behavior. But for many organizers and academics who work on police brutality issues, they are not the most effective. 

Prosecutions so often end in acquittal, for one–as the painful verdicts for the cops charged with attacking Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Abner Louima and Rodney King all illustrate. But more than that, organizers say the hard work of bringing about long-term change comes only from engaging in systemic overhauls and with sustained pressure on police departments to do preventative work. For that, people must be a steady presence at their local police departments’ public accountability meetings or in their local sheriff’s office. 

Some police departments trying to clean up their acts, most notably in New Orleans, are banking on public involvement as a preventive force. It’s that quiet, boring work that is as important as the public protests that have repeatedly filled Oakland’s downtown streets over Grant’s killing.

Robert Perry, legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who has helped develop civilian complaint review boards in New York, put it to me this way earlier this year: "The tendency is only to respond when the egregious high-profile case hits the papers, instead of the practices that are producing the misconduct," but, "the culture that allows this type of thing to happen is much harder to get at."

Still, the Grant family’s days in court may not yet be done. The family is exploring its options to pursue action against Judge Perry. On Friday, Cephus Johnson said Perry’s "judicial errors" were inexcusable. The family is also preparing for a May 2011 trial for its $25 million civil lawsuit against Bay Area Rapid Transit.