updated 10:52 a.m.
LOS ANGELES — The sentencing of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for killing an Oakland man, whose shooting death on New Year’s Day 2009 sparked outrage and protests and became a symbol for some of police brutality, opened early this morning as the defense argued its motions for a new trial and more lenient sentencing.
Judge Robert Perry of Los Angeles County Superior Court is presiding before a courtroom packed with many family and friends and supporters of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old African-American victim. Early in the tension-filled proceedings, a man was escorted out of the courtroom for an outburst.
About 40 protestors waited outside the courthouse, and microphones were set up at the front, awaiting a press conference by both sides when the judge's sentencing is complete.
Perry first heard victim impact statements from Sophina Mesa, the mother of Grant's daughter, now six years old and his mother, Wanda Johnson.
The judge said he received more than 1,000 letters from the public advocating the maximum sentence of 14 years for Mehserle and that he was concerned by their anger.
When he read letters in support of the former BART officer, Johnson and another woman left the courtroom.
The judge then heard two defense motion: one for a new trial and a separate motion to dismiss a gun-enhancement charge imposed by the jury. That charge carries with it a possible 10-year additional sentence on top of the maximum four years for involuntary manslaughter.
Perry seemed unlikely to grant the defense request for a new trial. The defense presented evidence of a similar past case, but the judge said he believed what was presented at trial was sufficient and he was not inclined to grant a new trial.
But on the gun enhancement issue, he seemed receptive to the defense argument that jurors had not been properly instructed and said he was troubled that there could have been confusion. A gun enhancement charge can only be added if jurors believe that the defendant intentionally used the gun.
The trial was moved to Los Angeles from Alameda County, where the defense claimed it would not be able to obtain a fair hearing because of the intense publicity and emotions around the incident.
Mesherle had faced more serious charges of voluntary manslaughter and second degree manslaughter. But the jury ruled on July 1 to convict on the lesser charge, prompting protests and some rioting in downtown Oakland that night.
Grant was among New Year’s Eve revelers on a BART train that drew police action after an altercation, and the train was halted at the Fruitvale station. There, officers, including Mehserle, detained several passengers and Grant ended up face down on the platform with Mehserle over him, exchanging angry words.
The incident was captured on a bystander’s cell phone camera and quickly was broadcast on the internet, creating an uproar over the image of an officer shooting an unarmed man in the back as he lay prone. Mehserle’s defense argued that the cop meant to draw his Taser on Grant but instead pulled and used his gun.
The shooting triggered debate over police brutality, especially among Oakland’s black community, and of the proper training in the use of Tasers by BART and Oakland police officers. Mehserle’s defense argued that the former cop had not been properly trained to use the stun gun.
Reporting from Los Angeles by Jennifer Courtney and Thandisizwe Chimurenga.