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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
The judge will weigh circumstances to determine Mehserle's sentence, possibly including his record as a police officer, his criminal record, age, remorse, and other factors, explained Jim Hammer, a former prosecutor and current San Francisco Police Commission member. The judge could toss out the sentence enhancement for personal use of a gun — and there's a possibility he would deem extreme circumstances, such as his police record, to warrant probation rather than prison time. But Hammer said he thought both of those outcomes are unlikely.
"The judge will want to appear more than fair, not giving special treatment," Hammer said. "Judges have to stand [for] election too, and in the light of the fact that somebody's dead, I think the chance of probation is incredibly slim."
Even if Mehserle receives a light sentence and then faces prosecution at the federal level, there is a chance that information about his past record as an officer — which was not admitted as evidence, thanks to laws that afford protections for police officers in these kinds of cases — would continue to be shielded. The protection applies even though Mehserle resigned.
"The average person just wants courts to be fair," Leigh said. "And there's an inherent unfairness in a system that allows a government or a police department that has all the resources and records to ... use against you while shielding what might be much more serious and relevant acts by police officers. That's one change that would be great if that did happen."
A key legal issue in the case and any possible federal case is reasonable doubt, Hammer said. "Reasonable doubt is everything, and no one talks about it. They just say, 'Oh, he didn't have intent.' That's not the issue. Can anybody really, honestly say that they don't have some doubts about his intent?"
At the same time, Hammer tempered his legal analysis with some understanding of Grant's mother's pain in light of what happened to her son and as the verdict was reached.
"If the dictionary had three pictures of murder for a picture image, one would be shooting somebody in the back who is unarmed," he told the Guardian. "What she's saying is not outrageous. If it were my relative I would probably call it murder too. She's not crazy."
As things continue to unfold with Mehserle's sentencing and the federal civil rights investigation, civil litigation is in the works too. Wrongful death civil lawsuits will likely be filed against BART by Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris on behalf of Grant's mother, as well as another suit by five friends who were with Grant the night he was killed. BART settled a suit filed on behalf of Tatiana Grant, the slain man's five-year-old daughter, in January. That total settlement should amount to more than $5.1 million, according to a media release on Burris' website.
During an interview after the July 10 press conference, Johnson was asked how Grant's young daughter was doing. He responded: "Tatiana is still struggling with the issue of when her daddy's coming home. So it's going to take time for her, when she does understand that he is not coming back home."
Outside Grant's family, many observers hope to see systemic change come out of this tragedy. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano introduced legislation to create civilian oversight of BART police after the shooting, but was unhappy to see how it was watered down during the legislative process. Now he wants to see stronger reforms.
"I think Oscar Grant's death was inevitable based on the lack of caring about how those police were trained," he told us. "If you're going to have the kind of independent civilian oversight that's going to prevent a repeat of what happened to Oscar Grant, you can't have this namby-pamby law. The mantra has been, well, this is better than nothing. Unless they're made to do it ... it's not going to happen the way we want."
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