Former cop Johannes Mehserle was sentenced Friday to two years in jail for the death of Oscar Grant – much less than he would have incurred had the judge applied California’s “gun enhancement” law that normally mandates heavy sentences when firearms are used in a crime.
The jury found, however, that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that Mr. Mehserle, a former BART police officer, believed the weapon he was using to subdue Grant was a taser, not a gun.
Mehserle had been called to the Fruitvale station of the BART system in the early hours of New Years Day last year with four other officers to look into reports of a fight on a train. Mehserle tried to arrest Grant but reported that Grant was not cooperating. Grant was on his stomach when Mehserle shot him in the back. The shooting was caught on video by another BART passenger and quickly went viral on Youtube.
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The jury deliberated Friday on whether Mehserle had intended to kill Grant. They acquitted him on second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, but convicted him on charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Though involuntary manslaughter usually carries a four-year prison sentence, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry sentenced Mehserle to two years in state prison with 292 days of credit for time already served. The trial had been moved to Los Angeles because of concerns over media coverage in the Bay Area.
The case focused largely on whether or not to instate the gun enhancement law, which could have increased Mehserle’s sentence to 14 years.
The gun enhancement law automatically increases a sentence if a firearm is used in commission of a crime. The jury decided Friday, however, that Mehserle may have mistaken his gun for a taser, and therefore did not intend to fire a gun. Because the jury believed this to be the case, Judge Perry chose not to enact the gun enhancement law.
That decision stunned Oscar Grant supporters. A rally to honor Oscar Grant drew hundreds outside Oakland City Hall Friday, and banks, businesses, and City Hall boarded up windows and doors in anticipation of possible riots. UC Oakland evacuated buildings and courts closed early.
Outraged by the Mehserle verdict, Grant’s uncle compared the sentencing to Michael Vick’s conviction when he said Friday, “if a man goes to prison for killing a dog and he gets four years, then of course two years is not enough.”
Mehserle will be able to apply his 292 days of credit to the two year prison sentence and could be released from custody in as little as seven months.
As night fell in the city, protests against the light sentence turned violent. The Oakland PD reported that an officer had been hit by a car, another officer’s firearm holster had been taken from him, and numerous windows had been broken. More than 50 people were arrested after police subdued the crowds.