A recent decision to move the criminal trial of Johannes Mehserle – the former BART officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Years Day – to Los Angeles has once again thrust the city to the forefront of controversy involving police abuse and murder. Nearly two decades after the Rodney King beating case and forty-five years since Watts exploded in protest of law enforcement’s brutal behavior, the Oscar Grant case offers Los Angeles yet another opportunity to show the world how far we have progressed, or regressed, in ensuring that everyone – including police officers – is equal and accountable to the law. As with any case involving law enforcement, it is not merely a legal matter. It is very much a battle for social power between the elements of the status quo (i.e. law enforcement, politicians, business) who benefit from police officers’ arbitrary violence against Black people in particular and those who are fighting against it. Specifically, the Mehserle trial will go a long way in concluding if the State of California is willing to convict a police officer for murder. While we are at least 6 months away from the start of the trial, its history-making potential begs for us to understand and analyze some important elements that will impact the verdict.
1. Support from Police –Mehserle is enjoying tremendous support from law enforcement despite the fact that he resigned from the BART police force and fled authorities to Nevada immediately following the shooting. Police organizations throughout the state have allegedly raised more than $3 million in support of his defense. Why would California police officers shell out millions to help someone who shot an unarmed person, quit the police force, and went on the run? They understand that if Mehserle is found guilty of murder it potentially creates a precedent that would make it easier to convict other officers of murder and other tougher felonies. Remember, the greatest taboo in law enforcement is to convict officers of murder. The belief is that they have the “right” kill – no matter how racist, tragic, and unjust. Police organizations will do whatever it takes to maintain that right.
2. Legal Strategy – Most people assume that because the incident was recorded for the world to see, Mehserle will automatically be found guilty. As many legal experts and activists know all too well, this is far from the truth. In order to receive the maximum punishment, the defendant will have to be convicted of either first or second degree murder. According to the law, first degree murder is pre-meditated and intentional. In contrast, second degree murder may be intentional but not pre-meditated. In either case, these are difficult to prove against on-duty police officers, who are given the right to carry and use a gun everyday. Furthermore, Mehserle has already stated that he mistakenly grabbed his gun and shot Grant. The Alameda County District Attorney, who hasn’t made decision yet on which charge they will pursue, has the huge responsibility to put together a strategy to disprove Mehserle’s theory and show that he killed Grant intentionally. Did he shoot Grant because he was a young Black man? Did Mehserle have a history of committing abuse and misconduct? These are some of the questions that may be considered by the prosecution in establishing intentionality and pre-meditation. There is a lot at stake. In the state of California, anyone convicted of first degree murder gets no less than a sentence of 25 years to life. No less than 15 years to life for a conviction of second degree murder. If Mehserle is convicted of either it would be a rare and historic moment. It would be similar to the first time Klu Klux Klan members were first convicted of murdering a Black man in the south.
3. Jury Selection – If history is any indication, these types of cases are largely won and lost during jury selection. In almost every police brutality and murder case, the officer’s attorneys will fight to move the trial to an area that can produce a pro-police jury (e.g. white, suburban) that will likely acquit their client. This tactic was recently used by Mehserle’s lawyers, who demanded that the trial be moved out of Alameda County for concern that the jury pool in the area was largely prejudiced against the ex-BART police officer. While they were pleased that the trial was moved, they were just as disappointed that it ended up in Downtown Los Angeles rather than a court in the more conservative, pro-police San Diego County. With a population more diverse and critical of police abuse and misconduct than many, the jury pool in Downtown Los Angeles potentially provides prosecutors in this case with a rare situation – a jury open to finding a police officer guilty.
When Oakland exploded in anger after Oscar Grant’s killing, many in Los Angeles sat on the outside looking at a scene so familiar to the civil unrest in 1965 and 1992. Now through the inner workings of the justice system, Angelinos are now center stage of another police-related tragedy. With a new LAPD chief in office and multiple investigations of Inglewood’s Police Department pending, the region’s leadership will be closely monitoring the Mehserle trial. Its verdict – whether guilty or innocent – may greatly impact the type of policing we will see here for the foreseeable future. Community activists and residents will need to be attentive and most importantly, effectively organize to make sure that police abuse and murder becomes a thing of the past.