I had a post all about the basics of the Oscar Grant trial, but the jury beat me to the punch: former Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle – the (white) officer fired one round into the back of Oscar Grant (who is black) as Oscar was lying face-down on the floor of a BART platform – just was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The incident took place in Oakland, but the trial was here in Los Angeles.
For those without a legal dictionary on hand, involuntary manslaughter is essentially, “Whoops, I accidentally killed someone.” You killed someone, but it was either a careless accident or it occurred during the commission of a non-felonious (but still dangerous) act. Think the outcome of a Russian roulette game horribly gone right. To convict Officer Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter, the jury had to find that Officer Mehserle’s fatal actions were essentially a result of one giant accident: he made a mistake, and it was one that arose to the level of criminal negligence. As we will see, Officer Mehserle’s defense is that he mistakenly shot Oscar Grant with his gun when he meant to shoot him with his Taser. The jury did not find him guilty of second-degree murder, the maximum charge, which essentially is homicide without deliberation or malice.
For those just tuning in and who may be wondering why Oakland may be on fire tonight, the plethora YouTube videos of the incident explain it all (mostly):
As you can see, Oscar Grant is pinned to the floor, face down, his hands behind his back. Officer Mehserle shoots Oscar in the back. With his gun.
As mentioned above, Mehserle’s defense was that Oscar was resisting arrest, and he thought Oscar was going for a gun. In an effort to get a handle on the situation, he reached for his gun when he meant to grab his Taser. He fired his weapon when he meant to fire his Taser. It was all a big accident. As we just learned, the jury agreed, and thus his conviction for involuntary manslaughter.
While most trials involving police brutality are noteworthy for their own reasons, this trial marks one of a very few times when an on-duty officer stood trial for homicide (the four Rodney King officers -Koon, Powell, Briseno, and Wind – all were charged with use of excessive force). For a jury to characterize an on-duty officer’s incredibly horrific and brutal actions as actual murder and not excuse it as part of the job – well, that would have sent a clear message that, finally, we can have a check on unchecked police power.
The message was not sent today. Guess we will have to wait until the next brutal killing captured on a dozen phone videos.