Weighing the Manslaughter Verdict in Oscar Grant Case

Should it have been second-degree murder?

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Protests broke out in downtown Oakland, California following a manslaughter verdict in the trial of Johannes Mehserle, a white transit police officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man, on a train platform last year. Mehserle fired a single round into the back of 22-year-old Grant while he was held down on the floor. In court, he claimed he had intended to use his Taser. The jury found Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a minimum of two years in state prison and a maximum of four years. The ruling has outraged a number of activists and legal experts who wanted a second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter conviction.

  • 'Just Appalling,' writes Kevin Drum at Mother Jones: "I hardly even know what to say about this. I wasn't in court and I wasn't on the jury, so I didn't hear all the evidence. But for chrissake. Look at the video. Mehserle didn't look confused and modern tasers don't feel much like service revolvers. And it's not as if he was acting under extreme duress. At most there was a brief and perfunctory struggle, after which Mehserle calmly raised himself up while Grant was pinned to the ground, drew his revolver, and shot him. The only thing that even remotely makes Mehserle's story believable is that doing what he did is just flat out insane. It doesn't make sense even if he were a stone racist and half crazy as well."

Involuntary manslaughter might seem an unsatisfying outcome for the killing of the unarmed Oscar Grant on Jan. 1, 2009, but it was consistent with the evidence that could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt against former BART police Officer Johannes Mehserle. Anything less would have been an injustice. Anything more would have required conclusions about Mehserle's state of mind that were not sufficiently supported in trial.

The bottom line is that the jury agreed with what any fair-minded person who saw the videotape of the shooting on the BART platform at the Fruitvale Station had to conclude: There was no reason to use fatal force on Grant, who was being physically restrained at the time.

Initial reaction on Thursday was not promising: several hundred people gathered near Oakland City Hall early in the evening, and were seen to be taunting police officers in riot gear and throwing bottles. At least one person was either hit by a vehicle or injured by the surging crowd. But a heavy police presence seemed to be keeping the peace, and hundreds of others were listening peacefully to speakers who had gathered downtown...

The very fact of a conviction of a police officer -- a member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit police, not the Oakland force -- was some solace. Black residents in Oakland, who make up a large portion of the population, have long had an uneasy relationship with the city's police, whose past episodes of brutality and malfeasance have led to a long period of oversight by independent monitors and a federal judge.

"We've been suffering police brutality for generations," said Lesley Phillips, a longtime Oakland resident. "We want it to end."

  • Outsiders Involved in Rioting, writes the San Francisco Chronicle news team:

Officials said the main instigators appeared to be organized "anarchist" agitators wearing black clothing and hoods. Many of the most aggressive demonstrators smashing the windows of banks and shops were white.

Community leaders had called for nonviolence, and during the day most of the rage from those who thought Mehserle should have been convicted of a more serious charge was confined to loudspeakers and animated conversations on the asphalt. But, as many community leaders had predicted for weeks, a determined knot of renegades faced off with the police who surrounded the protesters. They taunted the officers and threw bottles and rocks.

  • Was It Involuntary Manslaughter? wonders Abby Jean at Think On This: "Personally, I have a hard time seeing how they could have convicted on 2nd degree murder. I haven't seen any evidence presented showing that Mesherle intended to kill Grant. That it was his desire that his actions cause Grant's death. And that's required to convict on 2nd degree murder. I probably would have gone for voluntary manslaughter - those videos of the station certainly suggested 'heat of passion' to me."

I'm heartened by this evening's verdict. I've long believed that the answers to racial injustice in America are far more complex than our an eye-for-an-eye moral code could ever offer anyway. Mehserle is just one man -- an individual who's part of a much larger justice system -- and what matters is demanding accountability from law enforcement beyond this case alone.

On the other hand, I believe that Mehserle needs to be held accountable for his individual actions. And deep down, probably some of me also believes that Mehserle needs to pay. Maybe that's why knowing that Mehserle now faces just 2-4 years in prison for taking Oscar Grant's life still feels a little empty -- it contradicts my basic desire for retribution. The tugging cry of "Justice for Oscar!" that I -- like so many -- have carried in my thoughts for more than a year does not feel resolved.

  • Trial Showed Continuing 'Radioactive Fear' of Black Men  Adam Serwer at The American Prospect reflects that "America remains in the thrall of this ever-present fear, even in the aftermath of the Mehserle trial, as the media concerns itself not with the verdict or with justice but with the potential for more violence from the black community in Oakland. Fear is always the enemy of justice. Today in America, the former threatens the latter like never before. Forget what you see on your TV screen -- Oscar Grant isn't the only victim, and the people who share Grant's skin tone or hair texture aren't the only ones who should care."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.