Calls for justice - Page 2

Will the former BART cop who shot Oscar Grant spend time behind bars?

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Protesters carry posters at a July 8 rally in downtown Oakland
PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

"The litany of police killings of innocent young black and Latino men has evoked a public outcry in California," Jack Heyman, a co-organizer of the rally, wrote in an article in CounterPunch. "Yet when it comes to killer cops, especially around election time, with both the Democratic and Republican parties espousing law and order, the mainstream media either expunges or whitewashes the issue."

Heyman told the Guardian that he had visited Oakland high school classes to speak about the issue and found that in some classes, every single student raised a hand when asked if they knew the name Oscar Grant. "They happen to be sensitive to the issue of police brutality," he noted. "A number of them had had problems with police."

 

PRISON OR PROBATION?

On Oct. 26, opposing briefs on the sentencing were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Defense Attorney Michael Rains submitted a 126-page memo urging the judge to drop the gun-enhancement charge and place Mehserle on probation, which would keep him out of prison. Meanwhile, prosecutors with the Alameda County District Attorney filed a 20-page memo indicating that Mehserle should be sent to prison, but stopped short of advocating for the maximum sentence.

Rains' motion goes into great detail, quoting from letters sent to the court in Mehserle's defense, in which the former transit officer is said to be "a gentle giant." It even goes so far as to suggest that Mehserle's infant son (born New Year's Day, 2009) could suffer psychological difficulties later in life if he is separated from his father.

Grant, too, was a father — his daughter, Tatiana, is six — but the prosecution's motion doesn't mention how she may be psychologically affected later in life by her loss. Grant supporters sent some 2,000 letters to the judge, according to a posting on civil rights attorney John Burris' website, but none were referenced in the briefing.

The DA argues that Mehserle intentionally shot Grant, implying that the Taser argument was a fabrication. In the moments following the shooting, the document notes, Mehserle told his fellow officer that he thought Grant was going for a gun. "If the sentence in this case is to serve any purpose whatsoever," it notes, "it must serve as punishment."

 

INSIDE THE POLICE LOBBY

The Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) covered the cost of Mehserle's defense. The 85,000-member, politically powerful police organization maintains a legal defense fund for officers facing legal troubles.

Technically, Mehserle wasn't entitled to the financial assistance. According to PORAC's website, an officer who voluntarily resigns may be ineligible for benefits, and Mehserle quit shortly after the shooting. Still, PORAC stepped up and put itself on the hook for millions in legal fees to ensure he had the best possible defense. PORAC was a driver behind the Peace Officers' Bill of Rights, which established a unique set of protections for law enforcement officers under investigation for misconduct.

PORAC president Ron Cottingham acknowledged that its decision to fund Mehserle's defense was discretionary, but declined to say more. It's possible that PORAC was interested in preventing Mehserle's trial from setting a precedent for other cases involving officers who use deadly force against unarmed suspects.

PORAC also played a role in the BART civilian oversight structure that was ultimately approved by the California Legislature. The transit agency's lack of civilian oversight became a flashpoint in the wake of the shooting, prompting Assemblymember Tom Ammiano to draft legislation that would have created an Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) for BART patterned after the system in place in San Francisco. PORAC fought it and the effort was stymied.