- This Week
What the Mehserle verdict says about how far we've come -- and how far we have to go
A protestor squares off with Oakland Police officers just before being arrestedPHOTO BY RAMSEY AL-QARE
In the days following July 8, much was also said about mainstream media coverage of the events, in particular the notion that "outside agitators" would come in and start trouble. "I do not like this divisive campaign to divide our community and protestors by calling people outsiders," Oakland defense attorney Walter Riley wrote in a statement posted on Indybay.org. "This is a great metropolitan area ... we expect people from all over the map to participate in Oakland. Calling people outsiders in this instance is a political attack on the movement. The subtext is that the outsiders are white and not connected to Oakland. From the days of the civil rights movement to now, the outsider labeling failed to address the underlying problems for which people came together. We must engage in respectful political struggle. I understand the frustration. I do not support destruction and looting as political protest."
Mehserle's conviction suggests the jurors believed his defense that he meant to draw and fire his Taser instead of his gun. In legal terms, settling on involuntary manslaughter, rather than second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter, means the jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Mehserle had malice toward Grant. But the jury found that he was criminally negligent when he failed to notice that he had his gun instead of his Taser in the moments before he pulled the trigger.
"In California, and really in any state, it is extremely difficult for jurors to convict a police officer. There's an extreme reluctance to do that," Whitney Leigh, an attorney who formerly worked in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, told us.
"There are undoubtedly instances where things like this have happened at some time in the past in California, that weren't videotaped," Leigh continued. "But for the videotape, if you walked 10 witnesses in who said that what happened, happened, no one would believe them if the officer took the stand and said that's not what happened. The only reason there's a case at all is that there's a videotape."
Leigh said he thought that unless the public develops a better awareness that police misconduct regularly occurs, "individuals are going to continue to be victimized by a system that effectively encourages officers to believe that they can act with significant impunity."
Asked whether he thought it was likely that the federal government would decide to step in after concluding its investigation, he said it was a tough call. "The Justice Department is highly selective in the cases it chooses to prosecute for these crimes," he cautioned. "That said, the kinds of cases they choose are ones that tend to have a lot of public attention and concern, so this fits within that category. Since it's such a public case, it can have more of a widespread impact."
If Mehserle was prosecuted at the federal level, the case would invoke Criminal Code 18 U.S.C. Sec. 242, used when a government agent or an individual acting under the color of authority denies someone their civil rights through force, threats, or intimidation, based on their race, gender, or another protected category.
Then again, the federal government's decision over whether or not to step in may be linked to the degree of severity of Mehserle's sentence.
California Penal Code Section 193 specifies the mitigated, midterm, and aggravated sentences for involuntary manslaughter: two, three, or four years in state prison, respectively. Because Mehserle's case involves his personal use of a firearm, a sentence enhancement of three, four, or 10 years can be added to his prison time under California Penal Code Section 12022.5.