The BART shooting and death of Oscar Grant, and the subsequent jury verdict are not the type of story I typically write about. But this event has struck a chord, a deeply sad chord for me. I had followed the story with moderate interest since it first happened, and I was alarmed when I heard that there were no blacks on the jury. But somewhere in my Pollyanna psyche, I guess I just assumed that justice would still be served.
I was on the road heading home when I first heard the verdict. My first reaction was shock, followed by sadness. I felt contempt for the system, and that led to a sense of despair. As I pushed through the successive waves of emotion, I came to the realization that I had stumbled upon a tiny window into what the black community feels every day.
When I got home, I immediately set about the business of reading everything I could find about the event and the trial. I watched every video I could find — in fast motion, slow motion, freeze frame — over and over. I talked about the case with everyone I know. I was there in spirit with Oscar Grant’s family as they shared their feelings about the verdict. I felt solidarity with them when they criticized the verdict but asked for peaceful protest. I was not without tears as I watched Wanda Johnson relive the loss of her son, as she repeated, “He was murdered.”
So, was Oscar Grant murdered? Was involuntary manslaughter a just verdict? Everyone has an opinion. Here’s mine:
Once Judge Perry ruled out first degree murder, the range of verdicts was limited to second degree murder, manslaughter, either voluntary or involuntary, or acquittal. In the case of either murder or voluntary manslaughter, the prosecution needed to prove malice aforethought. This would require that they show that Mehserle either intended to inflict grievous bodily harm or was recklessly indifferent to the high risk of doing so.
Enter the Taser defense. According to Mehserle, he had intended to taze Grant, not to shoot him. The use of a Taser, while potentially causing significant pain to the target, could certainly not be construed as criminal intent or reckless indifference. In fact, Judge Perry’s instructions to the jury stated that, if they believed Mehserle meant to use his Taser, the verdict could not be more serious than involuntary manslaughter. So, putting aside jury bias, the outcome of the trial, in effect, actually hung on this single issue.
Defense attorney Michael Rains maintains that Mehserle did tell fellow officer, Tony Pirone “I’m going to taze him” at one point. So there is some reason to believe that tazing was at least a part of the equation. Grant has even taken a picture before the tragic climax that showed Mehserle pointing his Taser at Grant. But then, in order to prevent just this type of mistake, BART officers all holster there Tasers on the opposite side from their firearm. Mehserle’s Taser was holstered on his left side but reversed for a cross-body draw. Could somebody actually draw from the wrong side, not notice the 3x heft or different color of the handgun and fire a shot believing they held a Taser? Personally, I find this highly unlikely.
Also a part of the testimony is that shortly after the shooting, Mehserle told Pirone that, “I thought he was going for a gun.” Would tazing be a rational response to such a deadly threat? At the very least, it does call into question the consistency of Mehserle’s story. And then there’s also the fact that the Taser story didn’t surface until days after the killing. All things considered, there’s certainly an element of doubt regarding the veracity of Mehserle’s story, but then in court, it’s not the job of the defense to present an iron tight case. No, the burden of reasonable doubt belongs to the prosecution.
So much of this case actually depends on the lens through which you look. I hear people state with conviction that Oscar Grant was resisting the police. But I’m here to tell you that I’ve been under those piles of police aggression before, actually trying to help them get me cuffed, and still they roughed me around as if I were resisting.
I also know something about losing a son. My Joshua wasn’t lost to police violence, but the fact of the matter is that had it not been for the aggression of law enforcement and the corruption of the legal system, he would likely still be here with me. He was 21, and nearly two and a half years later, I still grieve his passing every day. When I watch Wanda Johnson, I feel her pain. That is my lens.
But in spite of my personal perspective, and my reluctance to believe what I feel is a contrived story designed to leverage the letter of the law, I don’t believe that Johannes Mehserle intended to shoot and kill Oscar Grant. In all honesty, I’m forced to ask myself how insane a person would have to be to pull a gun in front of a large crowd of onlookers, who were obviously not fans, and deliberately shoot a man in the back while he was lying prone and restrained. You would have to be a stark raving lunatic.
So, was involuntary manslaughter the right verdict? I’m afraid that in a purely legal sense, based on the evidence provided, it probably was. But was justice served? Absolutely NOT!
Beyond the tragedy, the real problem in this case is that it forces us to take a look at the discrepancy between legal justice and moral justice. In the end, even if you buy his story, the simple truth is that Mehserle wasn’t justified in tazing a man who was restrained by two other officers. Given the circumstance, a reasonable person would have to conclude that, even that act would constitute excessive force. The fact is that Mehserle was being an asshole and somebody died because of it. What should the penalty for that be?
For me personally, this tragic event did have one positive effect — it helped me to understand. As I listened to the family of Oscar Grant and others, I thought back to the terrible injustice of the Rodney King trial. Then I recalled my bewilderment at the near unanimous black response to the O.J. Simpson verdict. I never understood before how, in the face of the vast evidence against O.J., blacks could still assert his innocence. I think I now have, at least, a clue. It wasn’t about O.J. — it was about the countless black men who could never receive justice in the white courts. Regardless of what they may have secretly thought about the details of the case, only one thing mattered — a black man had prevailed. It was a sort of “Fuck You” to the system that so stacked the odds against them. Whether or not the verdict in the Simpson case was just — justice in a much bigger sense had finally been served.