Crime & Justice

Ex-Bay Area cop sentenced in slaying of unarmed man in Oakland

Carol Gomez of the L.A. Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant
Carol Gomez of the L.A. Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant
Brian Watt/KPCC

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A judge in Los Angeles sentenced a white former transit officer to two years in prison today in the shooting death of an unarmed black man on a train platform in Oakland.

Police in Oakland are on alert for possible disturbances tonight. An Alameda County judge ordered the Mehserle case moved out of the Bay Area because the shooting on New Year’s Day 2009 sparked multiple angry protests.

In July, a jury convicted former BART officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter with a gun enhancement.

So to protesters like Carol Gomez, who stood outside the criminal courts building at 7:30 a.m., the damage in this case was already done.

"The fact that he wasn’t charged, found guilty of murder, to me is an injustice already but it will be even worse, even more of a slap in the face if the community does not get Mehserle sentenced to at least 14 years, the maximum sentence," Gomez said.

If 14 years was the maximum, time on probation was the minimum.

Judge Robert Perry decided on two years in prison - and gave credit to Mehserle for almost a year of time he’d already served. The judge threw out the gun enhancement and said there was overwhelming evidence that the shooting was an accident. Judge Perry knew his ruling would please very few people, and he was right.

Johannes Mehserle is still in custody. He’s still behind bars and I can’t be happy, and I can’t rest until he is out of custody," said Michael Rains, Meserle's defense attorney, who immediately appealed the ruling.

Rains credited the judge for making three important determinations: that Oscar Grant - the unarmed black man Mehserle shot- was resisting arrest, that Mehserle had the right to use a tazer and… the point that the defense has made since the incident nearly two years ago.

"This was a case where Mr. Mehserle intended to draw and fire a tazer and by accident by mistake, he drew and fired a firearm," Rains said.

During the sentencing hearing, Mehserle spoke to the judge, through tears at times, to say he was sorry. But that’s not what Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson heard:

“I heard a fake apology in the sense that had Oscar not been resisting, Mehserle wouldn’t have ever thought about using his Taser," said Johnson. "He did not take blame for the simple fact that he made a mistake!"

Grant’s mother, and the mother of Grant’s child also made “impact statements” to the court. Their attorney John Burris called the sentence disappointing, but not surprising. He said it will only worsen the relationship between blacks, Latinos and the police.

"So I truly hope that he don’t have violence, that we don’t’ have a destruction of our city in Oakland or anywhere as a consequence of that," said Burris. "But I can understand the pain that many will feel here. Because without the judicial system as a place to go, there IS no place to go."

Most of the few dozen demonstrators outside the court building remained nonviolent. There was a brief scuffle between some militant African American protesters and two white men later identified as undercover police officers. The Los Angeles Police Department detained four protesters; it’s investigating the incident.