By Stephon Johnson, Special to the NNPA from the Amsterdam News –
WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Officer Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Oscar Grant in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 on a train platform. Mehserle shot Grant in the back while he was handcuffed on the ground.
The ruling sparked outrage among many in the Black community and beyond. Grant’s family, local activists and even the mayor of Oakland had something to say after the verdict.
According to the court’s public information office, Mehserle’s sentencing has been pushed back to the fall (October or November), with no exact date given.
“We will continue to fight for our equal rights,” said Wanda Johnson, Oscar Grant’s mother. “Certainly, we have seen how this judicial system has worked. To my family in Oakland, this battle is not over. We will be a people who are heads and not tail. We will be a people who are first and not last. We will be a people who are respected. Equal!”
Many questions arose in the aftermath of the verdict. Los Angeles, where the trail was held, is 25 percent white, but the jury in Mehserle’s trial was 75 percent white. According to Grant’s family attorney John Burris, potential Black jurors weren’t selected if they had had encounters with police, positive or negative, but white jurors who had relatives or friends in law enforcement were allowed on the jury.
Judge Robert Perry had instructed the jury to leave when the video of the incident in question was broken down. He didn’t want the tears of Grant’s friends in the audience to impact the jury. But the jury was allowed to stay in court when Mehserle broke down and cried on the stand. Also, guards would not let Grant’s family in the courtroom when the jury had reached a verdict. While local political officers and the mainstream media didn’t report these things, some were more prepared for the aftermath of the verdict. Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums discussed his feelings hours after the Grant verdict.
“This community has waited with bated breath for this moment in anticipation of this verdict and have come to this moment with pain, passion, anger, fear and hope,” said Dellums. “Many voices in the community are crying out for justice. Why so much attention on this particular case? This is not the first young African-American male that has lost his life to this kind of tragedy.”
Mehserle wrote a letter dated Sunday, July 4, just four days before the jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, that mainstream media labeled an “apology” to the family of Oscar Grant. In the letter, Mehserle stated that Grant’s death with follow him everywhere he goes and pleaded for forgiveness.
“Please try to get this message to the public,” Mehserle wrote. “I have and will continue to live every day of my life knowing that Mr. Grant should not have been shot. I know a daughter has a lost father and a mother has a lost son. It saddens me knowing that my actions cost Mr. Grant his life. No words express how truly sorry I am.
“For now and forever, I will live, breathe, sleep and not sleep with the memory of Mr. Grant screaming, ‘You shot me,’ and putting my hands on the bullet wound, thinking the pressure would help while I kept telling him, ‘You’ll be okay!’”
But Cephus Johnson, Grant’s uncle, didn’t buy Mehserle’s words. While speaking to the media upon the Grant family’s return to Oakland, Johnson noticed something missing from Mehserle’s letter.
“This letter—let’s be clear—was not address to us,” said Johnson. “He states in the very beginning of the letter, ‘Please let this message get to the public.’ I didn’t see my name or my sister’s name at the top of that letter. It’s very painful that the media portray this as a letter of apology to the family of Oscar Grant. This letter is not titled to us. Let’s be clear.
“This is a letter that was perfectly designed to influence the judge, as well as the jury, to affect his sentencing,” said Johnson. “It’s garbage.” Johnson also stated that the surveillance video of the incident showed Mehserle putting his knee in Grant’s back after he was shot.
“He states that because of the public and death threats on his life [that] he wanted to have some dialogue and couldn’t and he was forced to leave the state [of California],” said Johnson. “He can write this letter after he’s served 14 years in prison, and maybe we’ll believe him.”
Minister Keith Muhammad, who’s worked alongside and counseled the family of Oscar Grant, expressed a similar reaction to Mehserle’s letter.
“While we understand the process of atonement, the very first step in atonement is to be truthful,” said Muhammad, “to point out what is wrong and ultimately deal with the party that you have offended. A letter to the press is not a letter to the family of Oscar Grant. That is a political letter.
“This apology should have been delivered on January 1, 2009,” Muhammad said.
Hope may be on the horizon in the form of federal government. The U.S. Department of Justice has decided to step in and investigate the case as a civil rights crime. Any federal time Mehserle receives from a civil rights conviction wouldn’t be served until he completes his time for involuntary manslaughter. The last time the Department of Justice intervened in a high-profile case was the Rodney King trial.