Compromised Justice

Minister Keith Muhammad reacts angrily to the verdict rendered in the Oscar Grant murder case./Dennis J. Freeman

By Dennis J. Freeman

Los Angeles-Anger. Rage. Disappointment. Hurt. Heartbroken. These were some of the emotions expressed from the family and friends of Oscar Grant after the jury verdict was read at the criminal trial of Johannes Mehserle, the white Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer charged with shooting and killing the black man in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.

In less than a week the non-African American jury came back with an involuntary manslaughter conviction of Mehserle, who shot the 22-year-old Grant in the back as he laid face down at a BART transit station in Oakland, California. Contempt for the verdict, which came down at the end of the day on Thursday afternoon, came swiftly.

“It’s an injustice,” said Jack Bryson, whose son, Jack Bryson Jr., testified in the racially-tinged trial that have garnered the spotlight of the national media. “It was done to Sean Bell. It was done to Oscar Grant. There is no justice. This just gives them (law enforcement) a free pass to do whatever they want.”

The verdict, which carries up four years in prison, may have given looters a free pass to do what they wanted. While demonstrations in Los Angeles resulted in peaceful protests, the city of Oakland was faced with looters and mobs of people wanting to vent their frustration over the verdict.

 The jury began deliberations the Friday afternoon before the Fourth of July weekend and were to pick up on the following Tuesday. That turned out to be a wash as one juror was reportedly sick and another left for a pre-planned vacation. The jury briefly picked up deliberations on Wednesday before being going into recess until the day the verdict was read.

The jury was faced with handing down a murder, 2nd degree murder, manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter or not guilty verdict in the case. Sentencing was scheduled for August 6, but has been pushed back to the first week of November.

Attorney John Burris, who has filed a $50 million wrongful and civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Oscar Grant’s family against BART, Mehserle, and other transit officers, was outraged at the outcome of the jury’s decision. Despite a settlement earlier this year with BART for monetary damages awarded to Grant’s daughter ($1.5 million), there has been no settlement with Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother.

Burris, who said the jury’s verdict was “compromised,” hopes Grant’s family can get the justice they’ve been seeking in a civil court.

“The family is extremely disappointed in this verdict,” Burris said. “It is not a true representative of the facts. The facts here support a murder conviction. Involuntary manslaughter is the lowest form of conviction you can have. It’s almost like Mehserle got off, because he is not being punished for what he did. It is a compromised verdict. We’re very unhappy. 

“Their (jury) minds were sort of made up; it’s easy to make up your mind in a case like this because the video was there. This case turned on the video, plus Mehserle. Once Mehserle testified and gave his statement, then you have the video…that’s where the case was. All this other stuff didn’t matter.”

The highlight of this trial centered on police brutality and a heightened look at law enforcement abuse. Grant, who worked as a butcher for a food market in the Oakland area, was out on New Year’s eve, celebrating with a group of friends. An altercation broke out on one of the trains at the Fruitvale BART Station where Grant and his friends were. BART Police were called to scene. Grant and his friends were detained.

For a moment, there was calm, then chaos. A video, which was taken by a passenger cellphone, shows Grant on the ground, face down with Mehserle and another BART officer planted on his back. The video then show Mehserle jumping up, stepping back, grabbing his weapon and firing a single shot into Grant’s back. Mehserle, who gave a tearful testimony on the witness stand, told jurors he believed he was pulling out his Taser, not his service weapon.

Mehserle’s tearful plea and defense attorney Michael Raines’s maneuvering in his closing argument may have swayed the jurors’ decision in coming up with an involuntary manslaughter conviction instead of murder or second degree murder.

“He did not intend to shoot his firearm, Raines said. “That’s why there is no murder (charge). That’s why there is no manslaughter (charge). There has to be an intent or intent to kill. This is an accident, folks-plain and simple. This is what the evidence shows. We don’t have here evidence of criminal negligence.”

That’s not the way Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, sees it. Johnson, who serves as the family spokesperson, said his nephew was murdered-plain and simple. Johnson expressed his thoughts about the case after being denied entrance into the courtroom to hear the verdict read. After showing up and sitting in the courtroom every day, listening to all evidence presented and testimony given since the beginning of the trial, Johnson was kept out of the courtroom because he was a minute late and had to stand outside as the verdict was read.     

“I’m hurt,” said Johnson. “The verdict is not what we wanted.”

A big part of the reason why the family did not get the verdict they wanted was because the makeup of the jury, Bryson said. There were no black jurors or alternates in the case. That is an issue that should be closely looked at, said Bryson.

“If you’re a black man or a black woman…if you get pulled over by a police officer, you’re excluded from the jury,” Bryson said. “It’s like if you’ve been arrested, you can’t get a job because you’re a felon. People keep wondering why you can’t get black people on the jury. Well, that’s because you exclude them because every time you ask them if they’ve been in contact with the police. What black person hasn’t been racially-profiled? Now you’re excluded from the jury. If you’re white, and your family members are police officers or you have relatives who are police officers, you are red-carpeted to the jury pool.”

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