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BART verdict: Some family and activists not satisfied with manslaughter ruling [updated]

July 8, 2010 |  5:04 pm

Cephus Johnson, center, uncle of Oscar J. Grant III, addresses a press conference outside the Criminal Courts building.

Family members of the victim and activists said they were disappointed and angry that a former BART officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man at an Oakland train station. 

John Burris, an attorney for the victim's family, said he was "extremely disappointed" with the verdict, which he considered a slap in the face to the family of Oscar Grant.  

“The verdict is not a true representation of what happened to Oscar Grant and what the officer did to him that night," he said. "This is not an involuntary manslaughter case. This is a truly compromised verdict.... The family is extraordinarily unhappy about what has happened. It is not a true reflection of how the criminal justice system should work.”

Olis Simmons, executive director of an Oakland youth group that is advocating a peaceful reaction, called the verdict a miscarriage of justice.

"It is a walk for him. It is a walk," said the head of Youth UpRising. "I think everyone -- the family, every young black person who is afraid of the police -- everybody is going to see this as a miscarriage of justice."

She said federal prosecutors should file a civil rights case against the former BART officer.

"It doesn’t reflect well that we had an all-white jury, and it really leaves people feeling that his occupation and his race mattered more than the life of the young man."

She said she feared there would be violence, but she hoped "for the best."

Former Bart Officer Johannes Mehserle was accused of intentionally firing his handgun as he tried to handcuff Oscar J. Grant III on New Year’s Day 2009. Mehserle, 28, tearfully testified that the shooting was a tragic accident caused when he mistakenly grabbed his firearm instead of an electric Taser weapon during a struggle with Grant.

[Updated, 5 p.m.: Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, said, “The system has let us down, but God will never, ever let us down.”

“As a family and as a nation of African American people, we will continue to fight for our rights in this society,” she said.

“My son was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered,” she said. “... My son was murdered, and the law has not held that officer accountable the way he should have been held accountable.”

“Do not give up. Do not give up. God will never let us down. And I will trust in him until I die.”

Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, said he felt “great disappointment” when he heard the verdict.

“We knew from the beginning that we was at war with the system,” he said. “African Americans have been taking a look at this case in hopes that we could see the system work on behalf of us.… We as the family have been slapped in the face by this system.”

“It is my belief and the family’s belief that Mehserle committed murder. It is the community’s belief … that Mehserle committed murder. How the jury saw this and came to this decision is not understandable to me and the family…. We believe that his battle is not over,” Johnson said.

There is a higher “moral justice” that Mehserle must answer to, Johnson said.

A crowd of 100 people gathered near Oakland City Hall when the verdict was read. Loud groans were heard.
Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley said she was “disappointed” and “frustrated” by the verdict.

However, “the jury clearly did not find that his was an accident,” O’Malley said during a post-verdict news conference in the lobby of the Alameda County Courthouse. “What this jury found was that when Mehserle committed the crime, he was acting with criminal negligence and acted recklessly, and he intentionally pulled out his weapon and not his Taser.”
“They rejected that he was going for a Taser and found he used that gun in a negligent and criminally reckless manner,” she said, “…. in the course of committing a crime.”
“The jury also found true that Johannes Mehserle used his gun, and that finding itself indicates to us that the jury completely rejected the Mehserle claim that he had actually been grabbing his Taser,” she said. “We believe that Johannes Mehserle was guilty of the crime of murder…. The jury found otherwise. But it was important to note that this jury did not relieve Johannes Mehserle of of his criminal liability.”
O’Malley pleaded with the public not to resort to violence, asking that they express their frustration and anger calmly. “I urge those in our community to use their voices in a nonviolent manner. Let their important message not be lost in the violence.”
She said the prosecution team did the best it could. She said Mehserle “is going to prison, and he will pay for the crime the jury convicted him of.” The minimum Mehserle could get is five years, the maximum 14.

-- Sam Allen in Los Angeles, Maura Dolan in San Francisco

Photo: L.A. Times file