by Julianne Hing
In a press conference outside the Los Angeles courthouse immediately after the verdict was announced, Oscar Grant’s family spoke out about the verdict, calling it a “great disappointment.” Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson said ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle’s conviction for involuntary manslaughter felt like being “slapped in the face by a system that has denied us true justice.”
Johnson spoke unexpectedly, adding her thoughts at the close of the family’s press conference. “My son was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered,” she said, calm but forceful, enunciating every word and looking straight into the dozens of news cameras that had gathered outside the courthouse.
On New Year’s Day 2009, Mehserle shot the 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the back while he lay face down on a BART train platform. Grant, who had his arms behind his back when Mehserle shot him, was unarmed.
The three-week murder trial ended last week and the verdict came quickly. Subtracting time for the July 4th holiday and juror illnesses, the jury deliberated together for just under nine hours. Mehserle was convicted on Thursday afternoon of involuntary manslaughter, the least serious of the three charges he faced. The jury’s verdict included a gun-crime sentencing enhancement, which carries the possibility of additional jail time.
“The verdict was not what we wanted and it’s very painful at this time to even talk about the verdict and how it came back,” Grant’s uncle Cephus Johnson said. “But we believe this battle is not over. [Ex-BART cop and fellow arresting officer] Tony Pirone has a debt to pay. Johannes Mehserle has a debt to pay. And if Johannes Mehserle’s debt don’t be paid according to the system, there is a higher moral justice that he will pay to.”
Oscar Grant’s family, who appeared exhausted and angry at its press conference, remained firm in their belief that Mehserle’s actions that night constituted murder. They voiced concerns that the jury acted too swiftly – there were dozens of pieces of evidence and five cell phone videos from that night to review during the short time jurors deliberated. Grant’s uncle said that the verdict was far too quick for the seriousness of the charges.
Indeed, news of the verdict caught many people off guard. Family and media had just an hour’s notice about the verdict’s announcement before the courtroom was sealed. Johnson, who wore a full suit to court every day, was caught today in a Kangol hat and a t-shirt; he could not even get inside the courtroom to hear the verdict.
“We recognize as African Americans, the system is rarely fair when police officers are involved in the shooting of African American males,” the Grant family’s attorney, John Burris said. “This is another example of that.”
Burris, who is representing the Grant family in a $25 million civil suit against BART, argued nonetheless that today’s verdict was also historic. “In my long history being involved in police matters since 1979 and well over 30 homicides with police, never have I had a case when a police officer was convicted of any crime against an African American male.”
The family is looking now toward Mehserle’s sentencing, which will take place on Aug. 6. At that time, the family will have the opportunity to make a victim impact statement that they hope Judge Robert Perry will take into account when issuing the jail sentence. Mehserle faces a two- to four-year term for just the involuntary manslaughter, but up to an additional 10 years for the gun enhancement. It’s unclear how the two convictions square, however, since the gun enhancement requires a shooter to have fired a gun intentionally.
Either way, many in Oakland are outraged that the jury accepted Mehserle’s defense that the shooting was an accident. “The law has not held the officer accountable the way he should have been held accountable,” Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson said at the press conference. She urged “other families who might go through this” not to give up, and to have faith in God, who would never fail anyone – even though the criminal justice system might continue to disappoint.
Julianne is a RaceWire co-editor and the editorial assistant at ColorLines, where this story first appeared.