LOS ANGELES – A judge considering the fate of a former white transit officer who killed an unarmed black man on an Oakland train platform said Friday he had received more than 1,000 letters urging a harsh sentence.
Superior Court Judge Robert Perry read some of the letters in a packed courtroom where he was considering a request for a new trial for Johannes Mehserle. If he denies the motion, Perry is expected to sentence the 28-year-old defendant, who faces anywhere from probation to 14 years in prison.
Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in July for shooting Oscar Grant, 22, on New Years Day 2009. Mehserle has said he mistakenly pulled his handgun instead his Taser when he shot Grant as he lay face down.
Perry read more than a dozen letters for and against Mehserle, noting that some details were "flat-out wrong." Perry cited one letter that inaccurately described Grant as handcuffed when he was shot. Letters in support of the former officer stated that racial tensions had blown the case out of proportion.
Perry also noted another letter asked him to enact changes in law enforcement policy — a request the judge said he was powerless to oblige.
The trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of intense media coverage and violence that followed the shooting.
If the judge doesn't grant a new trial, the victim's family members will get their chance to speak directly to Mehserle at the hearing. Grant's uncle, Cephus "Bobby" Johnson, who has become the family spokesman, said he's given much thought to what he will convey in court.
"I'm going to say that a part of me died that night when Oscar was killed on that platform," Johnson said. "My entire family feels like they lost a part of their lives. I'm going to express our pain."
The case has drawn comparisons to the infamous 1991 Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers.
Oakland police said they are prepared in case there is a replay of the rioting that followed the shooting.
Mehserle gave his first interview last month to a San Francisco Bay Area television station, saying he was in disbelief when he realized he shot Grant with his handgun instead of the Taser stun gun he says he intended to use.
Mehserle's family placed a banner reading "Free Johannes Mehserle" on a sailboat in McCovey Cove during the San Francisco Giants World Series appearance. Not to be outdone, another vessel had a sign that read "Justice for Oscar Grant."
Experts said Judge Perry probably already knows what sentence he will impose, but the pleas made by both sides will not go unnoticed.
"Those statements can be very persuasive and my sense is you will see some very emotional testimony from both sides in that courtroom," said Steven Clark, a San Francisco Bay Area defense attorney and former prosecutor who has followed the case.
The involuntary manslaughter conviction has a sentencing range of two to four years. In addition, Perry must decide sentencing for a gun enhancement that jurors found to be true that carries a term of three, four or 10 years.
State law also allows Perry to grant Mehserle probation under unusual circumstances.
Mehserle's attorneys have argued for probation, saying the shooting was a tragic mistake. In court documents, Mehserle's girlfriend, only identified by initials, said she's had trouble telling the couple's son, who was born the day after the shooting, about his father.
"I tell (our son) his father loves him, but how do I explain to him that Johannes didn't just leave him behind?" she wrote.