Published November 29, 2015
OAKLAND, California -- The U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division will investigate a white Oakland police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man on a crowded train platform, a case reminiscent of the racially charged 1992 videotaped police beating of a black motorist in Los Angeles.
The federal government said it will step in after officer Johannes Mehserle was convicted by a Los Angeles jury Thursday of a lesser involuntary manslaughter charge, touching off angry protests in Oakland that damaged stores and resulted in dozens of arrests.
The justice department's civil rights division will conduct the review along with the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco and the FBI, said spokesman Alejandro Miyar, who declined further comment. The investigation will determine whether the case warrants federal prosecution
Federal officials planned to begin their review at the conclusion of the state's case against Mehserle, who still faces sentencing. The next court hearing was set for Aug. 6.
The Los Angeles jury's verdict raised concerns of a repeat of the rioting that followed the shooting on New Year's Day in 2009 on an Oakland train platform. The trial was moved to Los Angeles following the riots.
But the protesting appeared to be much less severe than the rioting that hit Oakland after Grant was shot, although police did not immediately release a damage estimate.
At least a dozen businesses were damaged, including a looted Foot Locker athletic shoe store and a ransacked jewelry store, police said. Protesters also smashed the windows of a bank, set fires in several trash bins, and detonated a small incendiary device near a police station that caused no damage.
Police said they made 83 arrests throughout the night for violations that included failure to disperse, vandalism and assaulting a police officer.
Cleaning crews began sweeping up broken glass and debris from the sidewalks early Friday morning. Graffiti on one building declared, "Oakland is our amusement park tonight!"
"This city is not the wild, wild West," said Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts. "This city will not tolerate this sort of activity."
In Washington state, vandals smashed the windows of a patrol car parked outside a Tacoma police officer's home at about 2:30 a.m. Friday, spray-painting the words "Oscar Grant was here" on the car.
During the trial, prosecutors said the 28-year-old Mehserle became angry at the 22-year-old Grant for resisting arrest. He was shot in the back while he lay face-down. Mehserle claims he mistakenly drew his gun instead of his Taser stun gun.
The jury had a choice between second-degree murder and lesser charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The jury found that Mehserle didn't mean to kill Grant, but that his behavior was still so negligent that it was criminal. The charge carries a sentence of two to four years, although the judge could add 10 more years because a gun was used in the killing.
During the trial, Wanda Johnson sat most days in the second row of a Los Angeles courtroom less than 30 feet from the man who killed her son. She hoped and prayed the justice system wouldn't fail her.
After the jury's finding, Johnson denounced the verdict and let loose emotions that had been mostly bottled up during the three-week trial.
"My son was murdered! He was murdered! He was murdered," she said outside the courthouse.
As Mehserle was placed in handcuffs and taken away, he turned to his family and mouthed, "I love you guys."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement urging Californians to remain calm and not resort to violence. Schwarzenegger said he had informed Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums the state was well prepared to assist in maintaining order.
The jury included eight women and four men. None listed their race as black. Seven said they were white, three were Latino, and one was Asian-Pacific. One declined to state their race. They left the courthouse under tight security.
"As we have come to notice, and we as a family has been slapped in the face by a system that has denied us a right to true justice," said Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle. "We truly do not blame the jury, but we blame the system."
At least five bystanders videotaped the incident in what was among the most racially polarizing cases in California since four Los Angeles officers were acquitted of nearly all state charges in 1992 in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, setting off deadly rioting.
The U.S. Department of Justice conducted an investigation and obtained indictments afgainst the four officers for federal civil rights violations. That trial in 1993 resulted in two officers being found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in prison, and two others acquitted.
Mehserle's trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of racial tension and extensive media coverage.
The case was a rare instance in which a police officer stood trial for an on-duty killing and that was captured on video from so many different angles.
Legal experts said the verdict shows the jury sympathized with Mehserle's version of events.
"It is legally as low as they could go without acquitting him," University of California, Berkeley, law school professor Erin Murphy said. Prosecutors had a "huge hurdle" to overcome in convincing a jury that an officer with a spotless record meant to kill, even with video of the killing, she said.
Mehserle testified that he struggled with Grant and saw him digging in his pocket as officers responded to reports of a fight at a train station. Fearing Grant may have a weapon, Mehserle said he decided to shock Grant with his Taser but pulled his .40-caliber handgun instead.
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Stein said in his closing argument that Mehserle let his emotions get the better of him and intended to shoot Grant with the handgun without justification.
Defense attorney Michael Rains contended the shooting was a tragic accident. Mehserle had no motive to shoot Grant, even though he was resisting arrest, the lawyer argued.