The Killing of Oscar Grant
There's just no way to sugar coat the killing of Oscar Grant. A white cop shot the kid to death, in the back, in front of witnesses, and was videotaped doing so. And still a jury could not find it in its collective heart to convict the cop of murder. Instead, jurors concluded the cop made a mistake. Jurors think Johannes Mehersle just committed a boo-boo, you see. The poor officer thought he was reaching for his Taser. His only intention was to shock Grant senseless. So Mehersle was convicted this afternoon of involuntary manslaughter, not murder. Kill a black kid without justification in this country and it's the three-fifth compromise all over again.
It is tense tonight in Oakland, where people feel betrayed by the verdict. Let's not sugar coat things here. Let's call a spade a spade: White cops can coon hunt in the subways. They just need to be careful not to get caught. Had this incident not been videotaped there would have been no conviction at all. There most likely would not have been criminal charges at all.
I've litigated civil cases involving police killings of civilians. Most often, there aren't witnesses to call for my side of the aisle. My client is dead. If there were family members present to see the killing, they're easily discredited. I recall one case in which the police shot my client in his kitchen as his mother watched. She wept on the stand. I thought she was a good witness until she told the lawyer defending the killer that she watched her son's soul fly to heaven after he was shot. "You are sure you saw that, ma'am? As sure as you are that you saw the shooting?," the lawyer asked. "Yes," she wept. The lawyer rolled his eyes. An all white jury looked across the ethnic divide and said farewell to this woman: she was an Arab, and even before 9/11 those people were just too different in white world.
But the case that troubles me most involved a young boy named Alex. Police were called to his home in response to an emergency call. When they got to the home, his mother answered the door. She looked distraught. The home appeared to have been the scene of a violent struggle. The officers approached Alex who was struggling and resistant.
While in the privacy of the kitchen, two officers and Alex struggled. The officers later testified Alex was on his stomach on the kitchen floor. His hands were beneath his body. As an officer took each arm and tried to pry his arms loose, the officers heard a blast and smelled gunpowder. They concluded Alex had a gun beneath him. So one of the officers pulled out his weapon, placed his knee on Alex's back, and shot him point blank in the back of the head.
Alex's mother never saw what went on in that room. The only two witnesses were the police officers. They could say anything they liked because there were no other witnesses. Alex was good and dead.
An expert retained by the family to review the evidence concluded that the police officer's decision to shoot Alex was not justified or reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. An expert retained by the insurance company representing the police concluded otherwise. Alex's trial lawyer was confident he would get to a jury.
But a United States District Court Judge, I believe it was Robert Chatigny, decided otherwise. (Judge Chatigny now awaits confirmation as an appellate court judge.) He decided the shooting was justified and granted summary judgment, concluding that no jury could decide that the officer had done wrong. Judge Chatigny, who had never tried a case to a verdict as a lawyer, figured he knew best. We took an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. If the experts in police procedure disagreed, wasn't there enough to get to a jury? No, the court held. Dead men can't talk; the cop walked.
I've never recovered from the shock of that ruling. I will always recall Alex as a young man executed point blank by a police officer.
So from afar as I read about the Grant shooting I am amazed that criminal charges were brought at all, and even more amazed that there was a conviction, even if it was for a crime far less egregious than murder. It is a cop's world, and young men of color rarely have a chance against the police when something goes wrong.
But for the video clips taken by young men and women nearby there would have been no criminal investigation of Johannes Mehersle. His brother officers would either not have seen what happened, or would have described a struggling Grant, a man who called death down upon himself by failing to comply with the commands of officers. I am certain of this because I have heard the same line of bullshit more times than I can remember.
So I draw a lesson from Grant's death. Community matters. Caring matters. The people who stood by and provided witness to this shooting are unlikely heroes. This is the best form of community policing. Shine a light on the man with a badge every chance you can get. Record interviews; videotape confrontations; question authority. Do it because if you don't they'll shoot and kill the next Oscar Grant and blame it all on the dead man, just like they do in countless other cases across the United States.