What’s Really At Issue in Mehserle Case

The verdict in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, the BART police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day, is due at 4PM in a Los Angeles courtroom. The case was moved to SoCal after a judge ruled that Mehserle might not get a fair trial in the Bay Area.

The news is full of reports wondering whether there will be riots in Oakland. It’s a possibility, especially if Mehserle is acquitted.

But this focus on possible riots is pretty annoying. The real question isn’t whether Oakland will riot. The real question is whether justice will be served to Oscar Grant and his family.

This afternoon feels like April 29, 1992, except I’m not in 7th grade and we have this thing called “the Internet”. As you will recall, that was the day the Rodney King verdict came in, where an all-white Simi Valley jury returned a shocking “not guilty” verdict against the 4 LAPD officers who beat King to within an inch of his life.

King survived the attack. Oscar Grant did not. He died at the hands of the BART Police. What I’m watching for isn’t whether or not there will be riots in Oakland. No, I’ll be watching to see whether California has made any progress over the last 18 years, whether the police will finally be held accountable for their actions, and whether Oscar Grant will receive the justice he deserves.

UPDATE: Well, as Brian noted below, the verdict is “involuntary manslaughter.” Doesn’t strike me as justice. Mehserle could serve a very short prison sentence, perhaps even probation (though I’d have to imagine that’s unlikely).

This calls to mind the Dan White verdict from May 1979. White was the assassin who killed SF Mayor George Moscone and SF Supervisor Harvey Milk. White was found guilty of “voluntary manslaughter” instead of murder. The result was the White Night riot, where LGBT San Franciscans faced off against their tormentors in the SFPD to protest the verdict. White served 5 years, was released in 1984, and committed suicide in 1985. White was a former firefighter in SF, and received favorable treatment by police and prosecutors, as well as the jury, after his murders.

Mehserle is right to have been found guilty, but it’s hard to see this verdict as justice. It does seem to suggest that 18 years after the Rodney King verdict, all-white SoCal juries are still not inclined to find white cops guilty of severe crimes when they assault and, in this case, kill a black man.

One hopes there won’t be rioting in Oakland over this. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is whether this will spur long-overdue reform of the BART police, policing in California more broadly, and whether it will finally spur California to rein in overuse of the taser, which Mehserle claims he reached for when he pulled out his gun and shot Oscar Grant to death.

Photo was taken by me at the Fremont BART station in February 2009

5 thoughts on “What’s Really At Issue in Mehserle Case”

  1. So probation seems extremely unlikely.  It remains unclear whether he got the gun enhancement, which would likely yield another year, or not.

    My guess is that he’s going to get the max, or close to the max. The hearing is mid to early August.

  2.  If the roles were reversed, we all know the outcome so how come when the roles are the usual the outcome is already known and unfair?

    This is why America will never fulfill its promise with a woefully unfair social system.

    Robert is correct that Whites in general are loathed to put a guilty verdict on White Police officers.

    Is this a case where the Federal Courts will have to step in again?

    BART is going to find themselves writing some very large checks here pretty soon and its going to cost Bay Area tax payers the most.

    If things were just fair, Oscar Grant would still be here.    

  3. Dan White got voluntary manslaughter for what was clearly premeditated murder–no accident that he brought a gun and climbed through a window to get to his victims.  

    That law enforcement gets so much deference on use of force is outrageous, but I don’t see this verdict as quite as obscene as that one.  

    I don’t know for a fact that Mehserle planned to shoot Grant, and I am pretty damn sure he didn’t intend to kill him.  So it doesn’t surprise me that jurors went for the “compromise” and convicted him on what we know for sure he committed–a criminal fuckup that ended in the death of another person.  

    I find the comparison to Dan White’s trial off-base, to say the least.  

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