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Mehserle verdict: Involuntary manslaughter

Mehserle was found not guilty of second-degree murder, and not guilty of voluntary manslaughter


Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal January 1, 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant III. Mehserle was found not guilty of second-degree murder, and not guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

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Despite complicated instructions from the judge, a jury of eight women and four men took only a few hours to find 28-year-old former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal January 1, 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant III. Mehserle was found not guilty of second-degree murder, and not guilty of voluntary manslaughter. Mehserle had responded to a melee which spilled from a commuter train onto a station platform in the small hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Several passengers aboard a nearby train at the Fruitvale BART train station captured cell phone video of the incident — video that quickly spread across the Internet via YouTube and other websites.

Mehserle could be sentenced to between two and four years in prison, with credit for time already served. There is considerable confusion about the so-called “gun enhancement” — something that could extend his prison sentence by as many as ten additional years. According to some reports, there will be no such enhanced sentencing guidelines, while some reports indicate that there will be.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Stein said in his closing argument jurors should convict Mehserle on the murder charge because the evidence had “proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” that Mehserle intentionally fired his handgun. Stein said during the trial that Mehserle, 28, “lost all control” of his emotions while Mehserle testified that he thought he was pulling out his TASER weapon and not a firearm.

TASER Confusion
“Mehserle was in a hostile crowd, trying to restrain a resistive suspect,” said Police1 Columnist Dan Marcou shortly after the verdict was read. “He was experiencing stress that every cop understands. A stress that can not be explained to the satisfaction of the screaming masses Officer Mehserle risked his life to protect. In the midst of this stress he made a mistake and pulled out his firearm instead of his TASER and a man died. It is not the first time this mistake has been made and it probably will not be the last.

“The jury has spoken,” continued Marcou, “and all that we in law enforcement can do is pray that Officer Mehserle survives this ordeal and does not become another victim of this tragic accident. We can learn from this incident and train feverishly with our TASERs — draw and reholster, draw and reholster, draw and reholster — in hopes that when we are faced with similar conditions we do not repeat the mistake. Sometimes lessons learned hard are lessons learned best. The trouble with hard learned lessons in law enforcement, too often it is after someone dies.”

Speedy Deliberations
John Burris, attorney for the family of Oscar Grant, said to the press after the verdict was read, “We are extremely disappointed with this verdict ...We were surprised that the jury came back as quickly as it did.”

In fact, few observers thought that the jury would return a verdict as quickly as it did. The case went to the jury Friday and there were only two hours of deliberations before the three-day holiday weekend. One juror yesterday fell ill, cutting deliberations after just a couple of hours, and another juror today left for a previously-planned trip. That juror was replaced by one of three remaining alternate jurors, and this morning deliberations began anew.

Prepared for the Worst
The announcement of the verdict — which took place just one hour before rush hour in the San Francisco Bay Area — threatens to wreak havoc on city streets where tensions have been high and business owners have been boarding up their storefronts. During the past week, the Oakland Police Department has been working 12-hour shifts — something the PD dubbed ‘Operation Verdict’ — in preparation for the potential for civil unrest in the aftermath of the Mehserle trial. A week prior, a half dozen agencies gathered at the Port of Oakland to conduct training and crowd-control drills.

At the time of this writing (presently 1745 Pacific Time) night has not yet fallen — night is when any rioting is likely to happen — and a “massive” crowd consisting of hundreds of people is gathering at the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. The Associated Press said most recently that “400 people are marching through the streets of Oakland.”

“The riot is a beast of energy and danger, fueled by testosterone, youth, and people with no long term optimism in their lives,” said Dave Smith, Police1 Columnist and Street Survival Instructor, about the prospect of rioting the wake of the trial. “Modern American scholars will forever contemplate the root causes of our social ills and law enforcement will always bear the brunt of problems created by them and often be blamed for the failure of solutions for them, but we must keep our wits about us and focus on doing our jobs.”

Should all hell break loose tonight, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, Oakland police, and of course BART police, are the primary law enforcement agencies that will have to deal with potential rioters. Mutual aid is available from all nine counties surrounding Oakland.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.