The kids outside of Mission High and at Seven Teepees haven’t heard about it. The adults on the street don’t know much about it – only that there might be a riot later. But a public defender and a community member who follows up on crimes committed in the Mission District said that the decision to give former BART officer Johannes Mehserle the absolute minimum sentence for voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant was surprising and disappointing.
Rebecca Young, a lawyer with the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, finds it inconceivable that Judge Robert Perry of Superior Court in Los Angeles dismissed the jury’s finding that Mehserle was guilty of using a firearm to commit a violent crime. “The jury unanimously found that allegation to be true. For a single man on a dais to go against the will of a community – that’s a terrible slap in the face.”
Two years is not an uncommon sentence for a person without a prior criminal record who is found by a jury to have committed involuntary manslaughter, says Young. The jury’s decision to add three years for using a gun would have done two things – it would have qualified Mehserle for one strike under California’s “three strikes” law, and it would have forced him to serve 85% of his sentence, no matter how well behaved he was in that state prison. All told, Perry’s decision reduced Mehserle’s time in state prison by close to 3 1/2 years. Or, to put it another way: what Perry granted Mehserle is the sort of sentence that a person would get if they punched someone and that person fell, hit their head, and died.
Ricardo Garcia-Acosta of the Mission Community Response Network, is also familiar with the Mehserle verdict. He’s been reading not only coverage of the sentencing, but the comments that people make on the coverage, which can get slightly depressing.
Garcia-Acosta works with police officers – as a liason between them and a category of kids known as “at-risk youth.” Just the other night he was on the street not far from the police during the post-Giants celebration in the Mission, when the entire neighborhood was partying so hard that gang boundaries began to dissolve – kids moving up and down Mission street, cruising through normally contentious turf, making every adult who knew the situation extremely nervous. “The cops seemed pretty fair,” he says. “Professional. It was the media let us down. That Channel 2 helicopter was over our neighborhood for hours watching us party, and the only footage they ran was of some people hitting a car that some guys from the Peninsula had driven into a crowd of people.”
There are professional cops and unprofessional cops. And then there is the justice system that is intended to winnow one out from the other. It’s not always the case, but today is a total letdown. “You can say,” Garcia-Acosta says, trying to be politic. “That I am extremely disappointed.”