In 2006 here in Arizona, a 13-year-old boy brought three friends home after school. His parents gone, the group smoked some weed. At some point the host decided it would earn him serious coolness points if he showed off daddy’s shotgun; knowing nothing about gun safety, he muzzled one of his friends as he showed it off and accidentally pulled the trigger. His friend died. Against his family’s wishes, he was tried as an adult and by the age of 15 was sentenced to no less than ten years behind bars for involuntary manslaughter.
His family decried the sentence as too harsh. He’s too young, they said. He doesn’t understand the gravity of what he did. Upon this, I immediately argued that our prisons are full of folks who didn’t mean to do what they did – and prison is there to teach that lesson. You cannot simply behave any way you wish and expect that when the consequences are tragic, because it was a mistake, you’ll get off scot-free. It doesn’t work that way.
Last year, 28-year-old Oakland transit officer Johannes Mehserle was involved in an arrest on a train platform that quickly went awry. Out of nowhere, Mehserle pulled his sidearm and fired, killing 22-year-old suspect Oscar Grant. The shooting resulted in violent riots in Oakland and many clashes between black residents and police. Mehserle is white; Grant was black. Video of the shooting showed the incident. Later on, stories conflicted: Jackie Bryson, one of Grant’s friends, claimed later that Mehserle said “f— this” before drawing his sidearm. An officer Jon Woffinden, however, testified that Mehserly said, “I can’t get his hands. I’m gonna tase him.”
Mehserly immediately resigned and cooperated with the investigation. When a warrant was issued for his arrest, he went in quietly. The story went that he intended to tase Grant and realized too late that he’d grabbed the wrong piece of equipment.
Mehserle has said that as they struggled, he saw Grant reach for his pocket and that was when he decided to use his taser. I have no trouble believing that. Some cops carry their tasers right next to their pistols; others, for this very reason, carry them either on the front of their belt or in a special holster on the front of their tactical vest. Either way, Grant was unarmed and Mehserle shot and killed him. Mistake or no something did need to be done.
What is irritating me more than anything right now is the response. Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter today, and friends and family of Oscar Grant are outraged. Why? Grant’s mother screamed outside the courtroom after the verdict, “My son was murdered! He was murdered!” Grant has become this generation’s Rodney King of sorts. Grant’s mother is, to me, no different than the mother of any other young thug of any race who swears their baby boys haven’t done anything to deserve what’s happened.
What are the facts of this case?
Oscar Grant was among 12 friends heading home from a New Year’s party in the early hours of January 1, 2009. BART officers received notification that a fight had broken out among the group and all of those involved were drunk and/or under the influence of narcotics. Mehserle and his partner were among those who responded. After the shooting, Grant reportedly said, “you shot me!” He survived the trip to the hospital but died later that morning.
What’s important, though, is that Grant was resisting arrest. According to testimony, he was repeatedly commanded to stop resisting. Despite claims to the contrary, Grant was not yet handcuffed; he was actively fighting the officers.
Something else is important. Grant was a high school dropout who worked at fast food joints while he peddled narcotics. He served his first state prison sentence for dealing drugs. Then, in 2007, he fled a traffic stop. At one point he pulled a pistol, but upon seeing several officers he pitched the weapon and fled on foot. He was tased during that incident and was so amped up on something (I have not been able to find out what) that he continued to resist arrest. He was sentenced to 16 months.
Fast forward to New Year’s Day 2009. He’s only been out of prison for three months. While on the train, one of Grant’s friends calls a young white boy a foul name. The boy’s father gets agitated, and Grant gets into a fight with him. The fight ends up including Grant’s friends fighting with a group of Latino passengers. That’s where Mehserly and Woffinden come in.
Why is Grant’s past relevant, you ask? Mehserly wasn’t involved in either arrest. He wouldn’t have known what happened, and it wouldn’t have affected his actions, right?
It’s important because it shows a history. Every criminal has a history. When Oscar Grant was stopped by police on that platform, he had no intention of going back to jail. Here’s why: an autopsy found both alcohol and Fentanyl in his blood. Fentanyl is a powerful narcotic analgesic, typically prescribed for cancer patients. It tends to produce a sense of euphoria. Like hydromorphone, which I mentioned in my post about Lindsay Lohan, it isn’t prescribed until a patient has already been on multiple narcotic analgesics that have since ceased to create the desired effect on a patient. There was no Earthly reason why Grant should have been taking it.
We’ve heard a lot about what Grant didn’t have. I’d like to know what he DID have. What was in his pockets? Was he trying to create a distraction while he tossed an illegal substance away to avoid more jail time? The press hasn’t talked about those issues.
I will readily admit that Mehserle was wrong and is deserving of punishment. I cannot accept, however, claims from overly emotional family and friends that he executed Oscar Grant. The man had a spotless record as an officer. Not a single complaint of unprofessional conduct was in his personnel file. I can, however, believe that Grant was doing exactly what others at the scene described and that Mehserle meant to use his taser.
Either way, he’s going to prison. His life as he’s known it is over. His wife and child now have to face a whole new reality because of his mistake. The difference between Mehserle and the thugs who belong in prison is that he’ll genuinely care about making a decent life once he’s freed and likely will never, ever commit another crime. He won’t resort to selling drugs to make money. And he won’t try to excuse bad behavior by claiming that society did it to him. That is something I can respect.