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The involuntary manslaughter conviction of Johannes Mehserle in the shooting death of Oscar Grant is a near legal and political textbook example of a conviction that satisfies almost no one.
Grant’s family members and supporters were outraged at the verdict. To them, it was yet another in the long train of cases where a police officer wantonly guns down an African-American, gets a half-hearted prosecution before a jury with few or no blacks, and in the rare instances when the cop is convicted, gets a hand slap of a sentence.
Alameda County prosecutors, on the other hand, seem grateful. They charged Mehserle with second-degree murder — pulled out all legal stops and, though not elated with the verdict, were happy to get a conviction at all. They will likely demand that Mehserle do prison time for the killing.
Grant family members have every right to be outraged at the verdict. Short of a full acquittal, involuntary manslaughter was the weakest charge on which Mehserle could be convicted.
Mehserle is due back in court August 6 for sentencing. The judge could decide to reduce his sentence to time served and probation. This would pile outrage on top of outrage. But no matter how infuriating the bitter reality –given the near impossibility of getting district attorneys to prosecute cops, and judges and juries to convict cops for excessive force – it was the best conviction they could hope for.
Beyond that, the case is a breakthrough in several ways. It validated the use of videotape evidence against an officer. In the Rodney King beating, and subsequent trials of other police officers caught on videotape beating and shooting unarmed civilians, defense attorneys have brought in a parade of use-of-force experts, and sound and video experts to discredit the footage. They argue that tapes don’t tell the whole story, and that the officer’s use of force was appropriate for self-protection. Judges and juries have generally bought this argument. They didn’t in the Mehserle trial.
The Mehserle jury had no blacks. The history of juries without blacks in acquitting cops that use excessive force against blacks and Hispanic unarmed civilians is atrocious. The jurors overwhelmingly are middle class, older, suburban, conservative, and lean toward believing in the evidence and testimony from police and witnesses that support the officer’s version of events. This didn’t happen in the Mehserle trial. The jurors did not totally accept the defense attorney’s contention that the shooting was a case of a weapons mistake and human error. They agreed he should not have pulled, let alone discharged, his weapon.
Alameda prosecutors did present a vigorous prosecution. They used the latest and most sophisticated technology to enhance the videotape of the shooting to show that it happened exactly as it appeared, and as numerous witnesses to the shooting said that it did.
Prosecutors did initially delay and drag their feet in bringing charges, but once they did, they did not go easy on Mehserle. They prosecuted him for murder. This sets a precedent. It sends a signal that officers who kill unarmed civilians under the color of law can be arrested and prosecuted for murder, just as they would be if they were not wearing a uniform.
Then there’s the sentence. It’s virtually unheard of for police officers to serve prison time for killing an unarmed civilian. They are jailed for corruption, drug dealing, theft, domestic battery, and perjury, but rarely for excessive force. If Mehserle serves any part of the potential two-to-four-year sentence in state prison, it again would send the signal that police officers who kill can end up behind bars.
The Oscar Grant tragedy was long, hard and painful for his family and the passionate supporters who demanded justice. Justice in their view meant nothing less than a conviction for murder. It didn’t happen.
But the consolation is that Mehserle did not walk out the courtroom as a free man as so many other officers have routinely done in the past. Of all the breakthrough in the Grant shooting tragedy, this is the greatest.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is “How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge” (Middle Passage Press). This article was originally published by the New America Media.