Mehserle sentence raises questions about justice system

November 6, 2010

Demonstrators stand outside the downtown courthouse voicing their disapproval of former police officer Johannes Mehserle’s two-year prison sentence. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for shooting and killing Oscar Grant, who was unarmed. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

What started in Oakland on Jan. 1, 2009 reached a milestone yesterday at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles. It began with the killing of an unarmed man by police, the officer’s trial, his conviction and finally, his sentence. It was a quest for justice that, in the end, turned out to be less satisfying than what many hoped for.

Johannes Mehserle, then a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer, shot and killed Oscar Grant who was unarmed. Grant was lying down on his stomach, pinned by another officer, when Mehserle shot him. Mehserle would later say he thought he reached for his Taser.

Civil rights attorney John Burris speaks at a news conference shortly after the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle was announced. He said the ruling was disappointing, but not surprising considering how blacks are treated within the criminal justice system. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Yesterday, Mehserle, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, was given a two-year sentence by Judge Robert Perry, who threw out a gun enhancement that could have increased the sentence to as much as 14 years.

Speaking afterwards at a news conference, John Burris, attorney for the Grant family, said he was disappointed by the sentencing.

“This is, on the face, a very shocking occurrence,” he said. “But I must tell you, I’m not surprised at all. Having been involved in many cases and seeing the injustices that exist within the system regarding African-Americans, this does not surprise me at all.”

Burris said that Judge Perry’s decision would further polarize race relations, saying the ruling only highlighted the contradictions in the justice system.

Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, called the criminal justice system racist and said he was not surprised by the ruling.

Cephus Johnson, Oscar Grant’s uncle, takes questions from reporters after the sentence was announced. Johnson criticized KTVU for interviewing Mehserle shortly before the sentencing, saying it allowed Mehserle to “sell himself as if he is an innocent person.” (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

“In the last 20 years we’ve built – just in the State of California – 22 prisons,” he said to reporters. Predominately, those who are incarcerated are African-American and brown men.”

From the beginning, there was a sense among activists that justice may not blossom in the Mehserle case. For starters, there were no black jurors. And then there was Superior Court Judge Perry, who presided over the Rampart scandal trials, which left many critics of police misconduct sour.

Aidge Patterson, an organizer for the Los Angeles Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, told LA Activist in June that he had his doubts about the outcome of the case.

“I personally don’t think this judge will give a fair trial,” he said. “We see 40 people killed every year by police and there is no accountability.”

However, there was a conviction and with that, hope. Activists had wanted a murder conviction, but got involuntary manslaughter instead. Erinn Carter, a member of the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, echoed this bittersweetness after the verdict was announced in July.

“The fact he’ll do time is a small piece of justice,” she said.

(Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

Activists demonstrating at the courthouse yesterday wanted the maximum sentence of 14 years. Their reaction to Grant’s death was not solely about Grant himself. It was in response to years of police shootings that many believe have gone unpunished.

“We got to make sure that Mehserle gets the maximum sentence,” said Kelly Flor, an organizer for the Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant. “We cannot forget about police officers killing our brothers and sisters. We are not animals. We deserve to be treated with dignity.”

But with Judge Perry, the 14-year sentence never came. Nor did the possibility of a lesser four-year sentence, leaving Burris to juxtapose Mehserle’s sentence with the four-year prison sentence of football player Michael Vick for illegal dog fighting.

“To some of the family’s point of view, what you take from that, is Oscar Grant’s life is essentially not worth very much,” he said. “Michael Vick received four years for brutality towards dogs. Mr. Grant’s life was taken wrongfully by a shot in the back and at most his killer gets two years.”

The sentence left some to question the justice system, which in LA, is not immune from its troubles. A 2008 report published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California showed that blacks in Los Angeles were “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested.”

According to the report, blacks are 127 percent more likely to be frisked, 76 percent more likely to be searched and 29 percent more likely to be arrested than whites. Ironically, blacks are 42.3 percent less likely to be found with a weapon when frisked than whites. The report showed similar disparities for Hispanics.

“It is implausible that higher frisk and search rates are justified by higher minority criminality,” states the report, “when these frisks and searches are substantially less likely to uncover weapons, drugs or other types of contraband.”

Also, a study released last month by the California NAACP and the Drug Policy Alliance showed similar inequalities in marijuana arrests in California.

Gloria Galvez (left) of the Youth Justice Coalition and Cherise Rogers (right) lead demonstrators with chants. (Dan Bluemel / LA Activist)

According to the study, the City of Los Angeles “arrested blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites, despite whites using marijuana more than blacks.”

Cherise Rogers, a black woman who, for over three years, has been battling her own case with police, attended yesterday’s demonstration. She says she has had to go to court 63 times to fight the misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and battery of a police officer that came from a reckless driving charge that has long since been defeated in court.

Rogers said she grew up believing the police were a force of good in society, but since her problems with law enforcement and learning how others are being treated, her opinion has changed.

“You can’t respect something that doesn’t respect you,” she said.

Rogers was visibly angry when Mehserle’s sentence was announced, having to stop herself from using expletives while speaking through a bullhorn to the crowd of demonstrators.

“I’m pissed,” she later told LA Activist. “There’s no justice system for people of color, the lower-class or people who don’t have money. You can get shot in the back by a cop and they’ll make up an excuse and they’ll end up free walking amongst everyone else. It’s scary.”

Last night, a small rally was held in Leimert Park. The microphone was open to anyone and Melina Abdullah, a mother of three, volunteered to speak.

“We’re supposed to believe in the system, we’re supposed to talk to the police when we need protection and they’re … killing us,” she said crying. “What are we going to do about this? I don’t really know what the answer is, but I know we can’t stop fighting.”

“I’m not going to let my baby get killed by one of these pigs,” she added. “And I’m not going to let one of your babies get killed by one of these pigs. So all of us have got to figure out something better than this.”

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