Transit Officer's Verdict Sparks Violent Protests

A former transit officer from northern California has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man. Johannes Mehserle said he meant to use his taser, but accidentally pulled his gun instead and shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant. The 2009 shooting continues to spark racial tension in Oakland where the shooting happened on a BART train platform. The ex-officer is white, Grant was black.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here in California, the city of Oakland had a very tense night, with angry protestors taking to the streets. The trouble followed a verdict in a murder trial involving a white transit policeman and an unarmed black man. Late yesterday, a jury found the now ex-officer guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it was not the verdict the victim's family and friends wanted to hear.

RICHARD GONZALES: The racially charged trial was moved to Los Angeles because tensions have been so red-hot in Oakland. The key question was never if Officer Johannes Mehserle shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant. Instead, it was whether Mehserle meant to kill him.

Jurors were shown six different angles of the shooting, caught on video by train passengers. The pictures show Mehserle and another officer on the ground trying to subdue Grant. Then Mehserle stands and fires a single shot into Grant's back. In tearful testimony, the ex-officer claimed that he meant to draw his taser, but mistakenly grabbed his gun.

Finally, in a tense courtroom packed with sheriff's deputies for security, the clerk read the verdict. Mehserle was guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The jury rejected a greater charge of second-degree murder, finding that the shooting was unintentional. But they did find that Mehserle acted with criminal negligence.

Outside the courthouse, Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, said the judicial system had let her family down.

Ms. WANDA JOHNSON: And my son was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered.

Unidentified Man: That's right.

Ms. JOHNSON: My son was murdered, and the law has not held the officer accountable the way that he should have been held accountable.

GONZALES: That sense of disappointment was shared by Grant's family attorney John Burris, who called the verdict compromised.

Mr. JOHN BURRIS (Attorney): It is not a true reflection of how the criminal justice system ought to work. We recognize as African-Americans, that the system is rarely fair when police officers are involved in shooting African-American males.

GONZALES: Mehserle's defense attorney Michael Rains did not speak to reporters, but did indicate he planned to appeal. He failed in his effort to get Mehserle released until sentencing. The former officer was handcuffed and led out of the courtroom. As he left, he turned to his stunned and weeping family and said softy: I love you guys. Mehserle faces a possible sentence of between two and four years of state prison time for the involuntary manslaughter conviction, and he faces an additional three to 10 years because the gun was used in the commission of a crime.

Word of the verdict in Los Angeles spread quickly back in Oakland. About 1,000 angry protestors converged in downtown Oakland and engaged in scattered skirmishes with police. But law enforcement officials were braced for violence, like the riots that erupted after Grant's shooting 18 months ago, when stores were vandalized and a police car was torched. Last night's reaction was more muted, but still angry.

Ms. OLIS SIMMONS (Director, Youth Uprising): It's surprising to me that I'm so overwhelmed by my feelings. I'm really disappointed.

GONZALES: Olis Simmons directs a group called Youth Uprising, where scores of people watched TV news accounts of the verdict. This was one of five public centers set up around Oakland where people could go to vent their feelings. She was like many people who were stunned that the jury spent just six hours over two days deliberating Mehserle's fate.

Ms, SIMMONS: I don't want to believe that race and his occupation mattered more than Oscar Grant's life, but the fact that the decision was reached so quickly is disheartening, and it makes me happy that we have the Department of Justice and the federal government to turn to.

GONZALES: Simmons is referring to a statement issued by the Department of Justice saying that it and the FBI have an open investigation into the fatal shooting and will review the case to determine whether the evidence warrants federal prosecution. But they'll have to wait until the state's prosecution has ended.

Mehserle will be sentenced on August 6th.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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