Friday, July 09, 2010

Officer convicted in Calif. train station killing

By GREG RISLING, Associated Press July 9, 2010

LOS ANGELES – A white former transit officer was convicted of involuntary
manslaughter Thursday in the videotaped shooting death of an unarmed black
man on an Oakland train platform, a verdict that touched off protests in
Oakland that led to at least 50 arrests.

Prosecutors had wanted Johannes Mehserle convicted of murdering
22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot once in the back as he lay

The jury's conviction on the lesser charge raised concerns of a repeat of
the days of rioting that followed the shooting on New Year's Day in 2009.
The incident is among the most racially polarizing cases in California
since four Los Angeles officers were acquitted in 1992 in the beating of
Rodney King.

Near Oakland City Hall, a crowd moaned and cursed Thursday when they heard
the verdict, decrying what they called a lack of justice.

Several business were damaged after 9 p.m., including a Foot Locker store
that was looted and a jewelry store that was ransacked. Windows were also
smashed at several other businesses.

Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said that at least 50 people had been
arrested and expected the number to double. He said officers are "focused
on arrests at this point in time."

Batts says officers from 15 different agencies responded to help Oakland

Firefighters were also called out to put out fires in several trash bins
and at least one dumpster.

Batts said earlier one person suffered a leg injury when some protesters
started throwing rocks and bottles.

Before the incidents, Batts had described a mostly peaceful protest,
although a small incendiary device had been set off near his department's
downtown station.

The chief's briefing came as lines of police in riot gear worked to keep
the crowd confined to a two-block area in the city's downtown area.

"There is no need for this. This makes us look like animals. We came here
for peace," said Jonathan Trotter, 34, who watched the Foot Locker looters
with disappointment. "This is a justification for the verdict."

Some streets in Oakland had been deserted after workers went home early in
anticipation of possible riots.

The anger is directed at the involuntary manslaughter conviction — the
lowest offense Mehserle faced. The charge carries a sentence of two to
four years, although the judge could add 10 more years because a gun was
used in the killing.

"My son was murdered! He was murdered! He was murdered," said Grant's
mother, Wanda Johnson, who earlier stared at jurors when the verdict was

Mehserle was taken away in handcuffs. He turned to his family and mouthed,
"I love you, guys," as his parents wept.

One female juror wiped tears with a tissue when the panel was polled on
its decision.

The verdict followed a three-week trial in which prosecutors played videos
by bystanders, and witnesses recounted hearing the frightening gunshot
that killed Grant.

At least five bystanders videotaped the incident

Mehserle, 28, testified 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 pulled his .40-caliber handgun instead.

Grant has become a martyr of sorts in a city where more than a third of
residents are black. His omnipresent image on buildings and storefront
windows arguably rivals that of slain hometown rapper Tupac Shakur.

The trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of racial
tension and extensive media coverage in Oakland.

Alameda County District Attorney Nance E. O'Malley said in a statement
that while the jury did not agree with the prosecution's belief that it
was murder, the panel also rejected the defense contention that Mehserle
had no criminal liability.

"The case is a tragedy in every respect. Oscar Grant should never have
been killed at the hands of a sworn officer," O'Malley said.

The case was a rare instance in which a police officer stood trial for an
on-duty killing and that was captured on video from so many different

The jury had a choice between murder and lesser charges of voluntary and
involuntary manslaughter. The jury found that Mehserle didn't mean to kill
Grant, but that his behavior was still so negligent that it was criminal.

"It's not real, it's not real. Where's the justice? He was killed in cold
blood," 23-year-old Amber Royal of Oakland said as a crowd near City Hall
moaned and cursed when they heard the verdict. A dozen people gathered in
a semicircle to pray.

Grant family attorney John Burris said they were "extremely disappointed"
with the verdict.

"This verdict is not a true representation of what happened to Oscar
Grant. This was not an involuntary manslaughter case," Burris said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement urging Californians to
remain calm and not resort to violence. Schwarzenegger said he had
informed Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums the state was well prepared to assist
in maintaining order.

"As we have come to notice, and we as a family has been slapped in the
face by a system that has denied us a right to true justice," said Cephus
Johnson, Grant's uncle. "We truly do not blame the jury, but we blame the

Legal experts said the verdict shows the jury sympathized with Mehserle's
version of events.

Prosecutors had a huge hurdle to overcome in convincing a jury that an
officer with a spotless record meant to kill, even with video of the
killing, said University of California, Berkeley, law school professor
Erin Murphy.

"I think it's a lesson that video can only get us so far," Murphy said.

Defense attorney Michael Rains contended the shooting was a tragic
accident. Mehserle had no motive to shoot Grant, even though he was
resisting arrest, the lawyer argued.

Rains also said Mehserle told a colleague before the shooting: "Tony,
Tony, Tony, I can't get his hands. I'm going to Tase him."

Rains did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Fallout from the shooting was swift in Oakland after the videos were shown
on television and the Internet. The shooting and the nearly two weeks it
took to arrest Mehserle sent the city into a tailspin of violence as
downtown businesses were damaged, cars were set ablaze and clashes erupted
between protesters and police.

Grant had recently been released from jail after being sentenced to 16
months for a gun possession charge filed after he ran from police and was
subdued by an officer with a stun gun.

The jury included eight women and four men. None listed their race as
black. Seven said they were white, three were Latino, and one was
Asian-Pacific. One declined to state their race.


Associated Press Writer Terry Collins in Oakland contributed to this report.

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