Los Angeles, Calif. — Anger. Rage. Disappointment. Pain. Heartbreak. These were some of the emotions expressed by the family of Oscar Grant after the verdict was read at the criminal trial of Johannes Mehserle, the White Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer charged with shooting and killing the Black man in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, 2009.

In less than a week the non-African-American jury came back with an involuntary manslaughter conviction of Mehserle for shooting the 22-year-old Grant in the back as he lay face down at a BART station in Oakland, Calif. Contempt for the verdict, which came down at the end of the day on July 8, came swiftly.

“It’s an injustice,” said Jack Bryson, whose son, Jack Bryson Jr., testified in the racially-tinged trial that received national media attention. “It was done to Sean Bell. It was done to Oscar Grant. There is no justice. This just gives them (law enforcement) a free pass to do whatever they want.”

The conviction, which carries up to four years in prison, may have also given looters a free pass to do what they wanted. While demonstrations in Los Angeles resulted in peaceful protests, the city of Oakland was hit by looters and mobs of people wanting to vent their frustration over the verdict.

Attorney John Burris, who has filed a $50 million wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit against BART, Mehserle and other transient officers, on behalf of Oscar Grant’s family, was outraged at the outcome. Despite a settlement earlier this year with BART for monetary damages awarded to Grant’s daughter ($1.5 million), there has been no settlement with Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother.

Burris, who said the jury’s verdict was “compromised,” hopes Grant’s family can get the justice they’ve been seeking in a civil court.

“The family is extremely disappointed in this verdict,” Burris said. “It is not a true representative of the facts. The facts here support a murder conviction. Involuntary manslaughter is the lowest form of conviction you can have. It’s almost like Mehserle got off, because he is not being punished for what he did. We’re very unhappy.

“Their minds were sort of made up; it’s easy to make up your mind in a case like this because the video was there. This case turned on the video, plus Mehserle. Once Mehserle testified and gave his statement, then you have the video … that’s where the case was. All this other stuff didn’t matter.”

The trial centered on police brutality and a heightened look at law enforcement abuse. Grant, who worked as a butcher in the Oakland area, was out on New Year’s Eve, celebrating with a group of friends. An altercation broke out on one of the trains at the Fruitvale BART Station where Grant and his friends were. BART Police were called to scene. Grant and his friends were detained.

For a moment there was calm; then chaos. A video taken by a passenger cell phone shows Grant on the ground, face down, with Mehserle and another BART officer planted on his back. The video then shows Mehserle jumping up, stepping back, grabbing his weapon and firing a single shot into Grant’s back. Mehserle, who gave a tearful testimony on the witness stand, told jurors he believed he was pulling out his Taser, not his service weapon.

Mehserle’s tearful plea and defense attorney Michael Raines’s maneuvering in his closing argument may have swayed the jurors’ decision.

“He did not intend to shoot his firearm,” Raines said. “That’s why there is no murder (charge). That’s why there is no manslaughter (charge). There has to be an intent or intent to kill. This is an accident, folks – plain and simple. This is what the evidence shows. We don’t have here evidence of criminal negligence.”

That’s not the way Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, sees it. Johnson, who serves as the family spokesman, said his nephew was murdered – plain and simple. After sitting in the courtroom every day, listening to all evidence presented and testimony given, Johnson was kept out of the courtroom because he was a minute late and had to stand outside as the verdict was read. “I’m hurt,” said Johnson. “The verdict is not what we wanted…It’s a slap in the face.”

The jury began deliberations on July 2 and was to continue July 6. That turned out to be a wash as one juror was reportedly sick and another left for a pre-planned vacation. They briefly continued on July 7, before going into recess until the day the verdict was read.

The jury was faced with handing down a murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter or not guilty verdict in the case. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 6.

A big part of the reason why the family did not get the verdict they wanted was the makeup of the jury, Bryson said. There were no Black jurors or alternates in the case. That is an issue that should be closely looked at, said Bryson. “If you’re a Black man or a Black woman … if you get pulled over by a police officer, you’re excluded from the jury,” Bryson said. “It’s like if you’ve been arrested, you can’t get a job because you’re a felon. People keep wondering why you can’t get Black people on the jury. Well, that’s because you exclude them because every time you ask them if they’ve been in contact with the police. What Black person hasn’t been racially-profiled? Now you’re excluded from the jury.”


Dennis J. Freeman

Special to the AFRO