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Los Angeles Wave: As Mehserle jury deliberates, tensions mount

July 19, 2010
In The News


Jury deliberations in the trial of a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer accused of killing an unarmed Black man in Oakland on New Year's Day 2009 are expected to resume Thursday after they were restarted Wednesday.

The jury began deliberations for 2 1/2 hours last Friday, but when jurors reassembled Tuesday after the long weekend, one of the original jurors had been excused because of a pre-planned vacation and another juror was ill.

On Wednesday, Judge Robert J. Perry randomly selected a new juror from the list of three alternate jurors and the jury began deliberations all over again, but they broke after another 2 1/2 hours because of a juror's doctor appointment.

Tensions have been high over the past three weeks, in which former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle has been on trial here for the murder of Hayward resident Oscar Grant.

Throughout the trial, Oakland residents and members of the Los Angeles Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant have been protesting outside the downtown courthouse and calling on members of Congress like Reps. Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee — as well as Attorney General Eric Holder and civil rights groups — to put pressure on the Department of Justice to pursue federal civil rights charges regardless of the outcome of Mehserle's trial.

Grant was video taped being shot in the back by Mehserle — the first law enforcement officer in California to face murder charges for actions taken on duty — while on a rail station platform.

Following the shooting, Grant was patted down before being handcuffed. In some minds, the latter added insult to injury. While standing trial June 24, Mehserle took the stand, where he sobbed and claimed that the shooting was an accident. According to Mehserle, he believed that Grant was grabbing for a gun — though one was not found at the scene — and that he mistakenly reached for his gun instead of his Taser.

But for Grant's uncle, Cephus Johnson, who has seen how the turmoil has plagued his sister — Wanda Johnson, mother of Grant — Mehserle's remorse has come too late.

"How I felt initially was hurt, pain, of course, extreme anger [and] confusion about what occurred on that platform," Johnson said outside the courthouse June 25. "I realized that police officers can be a gang and can commit murder and in many ways are never convicted of the murders they commit.

"Where I'm at today is where I was the very first time the media put a mic in our face and that is if this was a mistake, Mehserle would have exclaimed to the family ‘I made a mistake, I am so sorry.' We would have felt that. … But what we got was condemnation. We have been crying for a year and a half and all we have gotten is that we were wrong for thinking that he would murder him. Well the video speaks for itself.

"There has been no sympathy for our loss. Why not speak to that in itself so that we can be given the opportunity to forgive," he added. "And for that man to sit up there on that witness stand and start crying — fake crying —is not real. They had a year and a half to cry, they had a year and a half to say they were sorry and now all of a sudden we are supposed to believe today that he is sorry for what he did."

Even more disturbing, he said, was that there are no Blacks on the jury, which consists of eight women and four men.

Some believe that benefits Mehserle.

"It does worry us that the selection process has gone down the way it has," said Abel Habtegeorgis, spokesperson with the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. "But what is equally worrying is that some of the jurors have expressed openly their relationships with police officers. There are things there that could really blur judgment when it comes to having a standpoint that is not biased. We wish that things could have been a little more fair and balanced, and also representative of the area where they are in."

In a perfect world, Johnson said, there would be a fair trial and justice for Grant. No matter what the race of the jury, if they have any moral fiber about themselves and take a hard look at the facts, he added, justice will prevail. But he admits, it could just be wishful thinking.

More than anything, he said, it is not the jury under a microscope, but the justice system itself, and if the scale tips in Mehserle's favor then it has failed.

According to Oakland resident Michael Walker and a member of the Los Angeles Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant, getting Mehserle to stand trial was a step in the right direction and though he does not believe the outcome will be satisfactory, "I just hope that after all the smoke clears we will have a stepping stone so that the next time a cop kills one of our kids, it won't be so hard to get him [or her] to trial."

Like Walker, a number of the protesters that have been working in two shifts every day outside the courthouse had no relationship with Grant but saw this as an opportunity to stand for "a fallen brother," said Walker.

Walker alleges he "was shot by the police when I was 15 years old and I just happened to survive," he said. "So when I heard about this it became personal, that and I was fed up. I have seen too many time police beat us up and nothing happens. We have to take a stand, we can't keep dying in the streets like dogs. We are trying to push back. They always want to say Black people are animals and we don't know how to express ourselves, but when we use the justice system like [they] ask, it doesn't work."

Oakland resident Jabari Shaw also didn't know Grant but when he "saw the tape, I just knew it was dead wrong," he said. "That same day, we marched the streets and it took seven days before Mehserle was even arrested. People burned up half of Downtown Oakland, got into riots, flipped over police cars … many were arrested, many were beaten and had their things taken."

And according to reports, Oakland police officers have been training for what they expect could be another, more vicious riot if Mehserle is acquitted.

Habtegeorgis fears the same, which is why the center is "being proactive about this," he said. "One thing that we do know is that there is anger about the whole situation regardless of how the verdict will come down and that stems from long-standing tensions between our most vulnerable communities and law enforcement and the powers that have — in a lot of ways — alienated folks."

Habtegeorgis added that the center has been working with two of their allies to put together an emergency leadership forum, with a goal of bringing together young adults to "talk about what can be done that won't put their lives in jeopardy, their futures in jeopardy, but will also give them the opportunity to speak up and be heard in a non-violent fashion," he said.

"At the end of the day, we live here and this is our home and the only thing we would be hurting is ourselves if we burn down the supermarkets that we shop at or burn down the cars that we drive or the homes," he said. "It doesn't bring about the solutions that we need."

The coalition has been urging elected officials to step in before the jury issues its verdict, but many have been silent or are reserving comment until all evidence has been presented and an outcome has been produced.

When attempting to contact Rep. Lee, media relations representative Nicole Williams explained that Lee and her staff are closely monitoring the trial but as of now are not issuing statements until all the evidence has been presented and the outcome has been revealed.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is also reserving its comments until the trial is over. The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights also did not respond to press inquiries.

John Burris, with the Law Offices of John Burris, who is representing the family in the case could not speak with the Wave about the incident or the trial, said a representative from the firm, because he has been placed under a gag order by the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

In an e-mailed statement to the Wave, Rep. Waters, said that she had just "recently learned that the family of Oscar Grant has called on me during a press conference to look into why there are no African-Americans on the jury in the trial of former police officer Johannes Mehserle, who is accused of shooting and killing Mr. Grant on a BART train in Oakland in 2009."

Waters said she believes that "Mr. Mehserle deserves a fair trial and [Grant's] family deserves justice. … I understand the family's concerns for a fair trial. The unfortunate death of Mr. Grant shook the Oakland and African-American communities. I do not consider a jury that does not include one African-American … a diverse jury absolutely capable of carrying out the law and protecting the civil rights of Mr. Grant. The history of such homogenous juries is not one that gives African-Americans any comfort."

Waters added that she will be pleased to cooperate with Lee and any other Oakland elected officials or community leaders on the matter.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David R. Stein told jurors in his closing argument that Mehserle "lost all control" when he intentionally shot Grant because the victim was resisting arrest.

The shooting is "what happens when a police officer acts out of the desire to punish people," Stein said. "He let his emotions dictate his actions. ... The defendant's desire to mistreat Mr. Grant ... resulted in the death of an innocent person."

In his summation, defense attorney Michael L. Rains said the case against Mehserle was riddled with reasonable doubt.

"There's nothing that suggests an intent to kill — nothing," Mehserle's lawyer said.

Rains said his client "wasn't trying to kill Mr. Grant ... he was trying to Tase Mr. Grant."

Referring to the racial dimension of the closely watched case, Rains urged jurors to resist using their decision to "address social injustice ... or render a verdict as some sort of commentary" on the relationship between the police and minorities.

Last week, the judge rejected a prosecution request that jurors be allowed to consider first-degree murder against Mehserle, saying there wasn't enough evidence to show the shooting of Grant was premeditated.

Instead, jurors can convict him of second-degree murder, voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or find Mehserle innocent, the judge said.

If convicted, Mehserle faces anywhere from two years to life in prison, depending on the charge.