A few hours after the ball dropped on New Year’s Day 2009, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle kneeled over an unarmed handcuffed man and fatally shot him in the back.
The harrowing video of the incident in a BART station shocked many, prompting calls for murder charges. Instead, Mehserle was tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter, relying on his assertion that he reached for his taser but mistakenly drew and discharged his pistol.
Mistakes happen — no one would argue that fact. Yet, the two-year sentence, less than the maximum penalty for possession of a controlled substance, sends the message that either cops are above the law or black people are unprotected by it.
“I believe that, one day, as a nation of people, that you guys will not look at us according to the color or content of our skin, but that we will be treated right as a people,” Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson, said on ABC News, after Mehserle received the minimum sentence for his involuntary manslaughter conviction on Nov. 6. “My son was murdered … and the law has not held the officer accountable the way he should have been held accountable.”
After being convicted of involuntary manslaughter — making him eligible for a sentence of four years, maximum — for which the jury found him guilty, Judge Robert Perry ruled that Mehserle should serve only the minimum two-year sentence. Additionally, Mehserle received credit toward his sentence for every day he spent behind bars during the trial, meaning he could be out of prison in seven months.
Seven months from now, Tatiana Grant, the victim’s daughter, will be six years old.
The history of tension between the Oakland Police Department and the black community made the Mehserle trial allegorical.
It could have been an example of how far our country has come, proof that “justice for all” includes 22-year-old black people with criminal records. Instead, the verdict exemplified a double standard afforded to law enforcement and proliferated a lack of faith in the justice system.
Our country is built on a promise of justice that rarely is delivered. Yet, in modern, post-civil rights movement America, there is at least an assumption of equality — but a case like Mehserle’s chips away at the faith on which this country stands.
In 1992, after the four officers convicted of beating Rodney King were acquitted, Los Angeles erupted in violent riots, leading to 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries and more than 7,000 fires over a five-day period.
Many different politicians and commentators have offered reasons for the size and force of the uprising — from inner-city difficulties to intense poverty — but the spark that ignited the kindling was the lack of justice in the court system.
The police department is meant to “protect and serve.” For that reason, police officers are afforded the right to use force and, in certain circumstances, deadly force.
However, when beatings, or even murder, are excused as part of the job, justice becomes absent within the justice system. When the segment of state committed to law and order need not adhere to the law, keeping order will become impossible.
Without citizens’ faith in the state, the job of law enforcement becomes more difficult. As evidenced by the O.J. Simpson trial verdict, which was four years after the Rodney King beating took place, a lack of faith in law enforcement will make convictions more difficult.
Oscar Grant Sr., the victim’s grandfather, warned of the message the verdict sends to the Oakland community.
“They’re telling the public, though he went to trial, a policeman can shoot someone and go free,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “These guys have a license to kill.”
Judge Perry had an opportunity to assert that every American really does receive equal protection under the law. Instead, he reiterated a message that has been sent over and over again to black people: America is one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for some.