July 8, 2010 -- A white transit police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man in Oakland, Calif., was convicted of involuntary manslaughter today in a racially-charged case authorities fear could spark violent demonstrations in Oakland and Los Angeles.
The verdict came after more than six hours of jury deliberations over the course of two days in Los Angeles, where the trial was moved because of extensive media coverage.
The victim, Oscar Grant, 22, was among a group of revelers returning from San Francisco on New Year's night 2009 who were involved in a fight on a BART train. A scuffle broke out after Grant and members of his group were pulled off the train at Oakland's Fruitvale station. Grant was on his stomach when former transit cop Johannes Mehserle pulled out his gun and shot him in the back.
The jury decision means that Mehserle, 28, could be sent to prison for two to four years. Sentencing is set for Aug. 6.
Legal experts called the case the most racially polarizing trial in the state since four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in 1992 in the famed Rodney King beating.
Oakland community leaders have been taking steps to try to ensure calm after the verdict, including opening centers where people will be able to vent their feelings. The "community engagement centers" are meant for people to discuss the trial's outcome.
Mehserle was charged with first-degree murder in the killing, but a judge removed that option last week and ruled that the jury could consider only second-degree murder or lesser manslaughter charges -- or a verdict of not guilty of any charges.
After testimony in the trial ended, the prosecutor last Friday asked a Los Angeles County jury to do what no local jury had done in nearly 30 years: convict a police officer of murder in an on-duty shooting.
The shooting sparked violent street protests in Oakland, where the death of Grant – a grocery store worker and young father from Hayward, Calif., whose criminal record included violent felony convictions and who had been recently released from jail – was seen as a symbol of long-simmering tensions between minorities and law enforcement. He became a martyr of sorts, his image plastered on buildings and storefront windows across the city, his name memorialized in hip-hop songs and murals.
Police Move to Guard Against Another Round of Oakland Rioting
In Oakland, police moved to prevent a repeat of the rioting that occurred after grainy videos of the shooting were made public. At the time, there were more than 100 arrests, the majority involving what police called "professional rioters and agitators" from outside the Oakland area.
In anticipation of the verdict, officers brushed up on crowd control procedures and worked 12-hour shifts. In Los Angeles, already-tight security around the courthouse was beefed up.
"We're not anticipating or hearing of any violence," Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Holly Joshi told ABCNews.com. "The main body of preparation is not crowd control or riot preparation, but it has to do with reaching out to community leaders."
In his closing argument, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Stein said police officers were supposed to protect and serve, not abuse their authority. "We also entrust them with our lives and our fellow citizens,'" he said. "Oscar Grant represents one of those citizens."
But defense attorney Michael Rains called the shooting a tragic accident, saying his client had inadequate training. Mehserle testified that he accidentally grabbed his gun instead of reaching for his Taser. Witnesses testified that Mehserle appeared to be in shock after shooting Grant.
"On Jan. 1, 2009, Johannes Mehserle fired a single gunshot and it brought him to this place before you, and you are his shot at justice," Rains told jurors, using a line from the 1982 legal drama "The Verdict," starring Paul Newman.
Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg told ABCNews.com that Mehserle's story about confusing his gun for his Taser will be hard for a jury to believe.
"The training would make that almost impossible, and the fact is that the weight of a gun is so significantly greater than the weight of a Taser, that this is improbable," he said.
And the fact that prosecutors originally sought a murder conviction may have set the bar too high, say some legal experts.
"I know there are people in Oakland urging for calm who have tried to tell residents that a manslaughter verdict would be a victory against Mehserle," Weisberg said. "The problem is that the prosecutor has set it up so that it would feel like a failure. Let's face it, the term murder is not just a legal term, it's a kind of an emotive term. And if he's acquitted of murder – and it would be true if it's a manslaughter verdict – well that is symbolically is going to feel like a defeat for many people."
Verdict in Racially Charged Trial of Transit Cop
Mehserle resigned from the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency after the shooting. His trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of extensive media coverage and growing racial tensions.
Another officer was heard on video using a racial slur before the shooting, but no evidence was presented that Mehserle's actions were influenced by prejudice.
Prosecutors repeatedly played several videos for jurors, taken by witnesses, that show Mehserle aiming his handgun and firing a single round into Grant's back as he stood over him. The footage may have fueled expectations of a murder conviction.
Legal experts said prosecutors rarely file murder charges in police shootings. When they do, the state faces a high legal hurdle in persuading a jury that an officer is guity.
"Every jury and juror in any part of the country is always going to be concerned about convicting any government official or law enforcement personnel under criminal laws that are themselves drawn in a general way that isn't sensitive to the unique challenges that law enforcement necessarily face," Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University, told ABCNews.com.