NBC Bay Area
News helicopters and hundreds of police watch their every move.
Hundreds of protesters angered with a judge's sentence in the deadly shooting of a BART rider nearly two years ago took to the streets of Oakland Friday night.
A group of about 200-300 people left a rally outside City Hall just after 6 p.m. and marched toward the Fruitvale BART station. That is where Oscar Grant was shot and killed by Johannes Mehserle on New Year's Day 2009.
The Oakland police department said they would allow people to protest the sentencing as long as they stayed non-violent. The people who walked on the streets, not the sidewalks, appeared to be doing so peacefully. News helicopters followed their every move. The original group stretched along at least two city blocks as they walked in the direction of the Fruitvale station.
A smaller group of about 150 were stopped by police, both in patrol cars and in riot gear, near the intersection of 6th and E. 17th. That group was literally encircled by officers in every direction at 7:15 p.m.
Police said they stopped the group because someone ripped a gun from a police officer's holster and then pointed it at him. Fellow officers came to his aid and arrested the man, but Police Chief Anthony Batts said that incident crossed a line and forced him to shut the protest down. Officers began making dozens of arrests after 8 p.m. near the intersection of 6th and E.17th.
NBC Bay Area photographer Robert Wellington said the group was chanting, but seemed contained. He estimated the crowd to be smaller than the one that gathered after Mehserle was convicted of manslaughter by a southern California jury back in July.
The protest followed a judge's sentencing of a white former transit officer to two years in prison in the shooting death of an unarmed black man on a California train platform, angering friends and family members of the victim who wanted a much harsher punishment.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry gave Mehserle to two years time served in prison for the 2009 New Year's Day killing of Oscar Grant on a BART station platform.
The case against defendant Mehserle has provoked racial unrest at every turn, and police in Oakland were on alert for more problems following a sentence that many thought was too light.
Some of the dozens of people who gathered outside Oakland City Hall for a tribute to victim Oscar Grant broke into tears when they learned of the judge's decision. Outside the Los Angeles courthouse, a small crowd that had earlier shouted "No justice, no peace" reacted relatively calmly to the sentence.
Grant's uncle, Bobby Cephus Johnson, said outside the courthouse that the family was reacting calmly but could not comment for others.
"I have no power over what people feel their matter of expression should be," he said. Supporters who agree with the family began gathering in downtown Oakland shortly after the sentence was read.
Mehserle had faced a possible 14-year maximum term after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The mother of Grant shouted, "Oh my!" when Superior Court Judge Robert Perry issued the two-year sentence in court.
In making his decision, Perry threw out a gun enhancement that could have added 10 years in prison and said there was overwhelming evidence that it was an accidental shooting.
"I did the best I could with this case," Perry told the courtroom. "My decisions today will not be well-received by many people. I'm sorry for that."
Police said they were prepared in case there was a replay of the rioting in Oakland that followed the shooting on New Year's Day 2009.
"This is on its face a very shocking outcome, but I must tell you I'm not surprised at all," family attorney John Burris said.
He acknowledged that a small step was taken by the justice system in sentencing Mehserle to two years, but he said that was insufficient. He said both he and Johnson noted that NFL star Michael Vick got a harsher sentence for running a dog-fighting ring.
"What you take from that is that Oscar Grant's life was not worth very much," Burris said.
Reaction to the case has drawn comparisons to the infamous 1991 Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers, which inflamed a racial divide and led to the disastrous 1992 riot when the officers were acquitted of brutality charges.
Mehserle was convicted in July in the videotaped, killing of the 22-year-old Grant in Oakland. The case was moved to Los Angeles for trial.
Perry had wide discretion when sentencing the 28-year-old Mehserle.
Prosecutors sought prison time for Mehserle, whose lawyers argued for probation.
Perry said Mehserle has served nearly 150 days in custody and with credit for time served, he has 293 days applied to his sentence, nearly cutting the sentence nearly in half.
Defense attorney Michael Rains filed an immediate appeal with the court.
Mehserle testified during the trial that he thought Grant had a weapon and decided to shock him with his stun gun but instead pulled his .40-caliber handgun. Grant was unarmed and face down when he was shot.
Sentencing came after four relatives of Grant and his fiancee pleaded with Perry to order Mehserle to prison for 14 years.
Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, cried as she gave a victim impact statement.
"I live every day of my life in pain," she said. "My son is not here because of a careless action."
The family continues to maintain that it was murder when Mehserle shot Grant. Mehserle was a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer responding to a report of a fight.
He went on television, with what is quickly becoming a controversial interview, to explain his side of the story and apologize to the Grant family. He apologized again in court on Friday. Shackled and wearing a jail jumpsuit, stood before the judge before sentencing and apologized for the shooting, which he contended was accidental and not racially motivated.
"I want to say how deeply sorry I am," Mehserle said. "Nothing I ever say or do will heal the wound. I will always be sorry for taking Mr. Grant from them."
He also cried during portions of his 10-minute statement.
Earlier, the judge said he had received more than 1,000 letters urging a harsh sentence. The judge also dismissed a defense motion for a new trial.
Prosecutors had sought a second-degree murder conviction, saying Mehserle became angry at Grant for resisting arrest.
However, jurors were given the choice of lesser charges, including voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. In reaching a decision on involuntary manslaughter, jurors found that Mehserle didn't mean to kill Grant, but his behavior was still so negligent that it was criminal.
Involuntary manslaughter has a sentencing range of two to four years, while the gun allegation carries a term of three, four or 10 years.
Perry had several options in sentencing Mehserle that include tossing out the gun enhancement that was written into law to punish robbers and other armed criminals.
Early in the day, before the sentencing, there was a scuffle outside the Los Angeles courthouse that led to at least one arrest. The exact circumstance were unclear but police said it occurred when members of the crowd supporting Grant's family recognized an undercover Los Angeles police officer who was leaving the building.
Sheriff's deputies moved in after a verbal dispute escalated.
NBC Bay Area reporter Jodi Hernandez is in the courtroom sending live updates.
12:17 - Mehserle's attorney Michael Raines just argued to the judge that if there was ever a case for probation this is it. He said officers make mistakes and this was a mistake. He told the judge he is not criminally oriented or uncaring and psychologists said so. He is human. He said to the judge this man lives in a self constructed prison everyday. This young man has prayed an enormous price and will pay the price in his own mind and his own life for the rest of his life.
One grant family memeber said "He is an uncaring monster with no remorse." She said he made a severe mistake so he has to deal with severe consequences
Grant's Uncle Bobby got very emotional practically yelling at the judge The judge had to tell him to calm down. He said to the judge "to lose the right to justice because of your error. I am hurt to hear you say you failed. We want justice...and we should not lose this case because of you."
Everyone was sobbing during family statements and during Mehserle's statements. His family was crying and Mehserle was crying through out and cried afterwards.
One man was taken out of the courtroom this morning because of something the judge said.
12:07: Five of Oscar Grant's family members spoke in court. The room is very tense.
12:06 p.m. - Mehserle made a statement following an emotional one from Oscar Grant's family : I stand before you in a jail jump suit. I pray for Mr. Grant and his family daily. I will always be saddened and strickenend with grief by what happened to Mr. Grant and the mistake I made - I pray the public will undersand that police officers are also human and the unfortunate reality is tragic mistakes like this do occur. I am truly sorry for my actions. It is a loss the Grant family should not have to endure. I pray no other officer will wear these shoes. I will all my heart have been and always be sorry for taking Oscar from them. I pray one day they will find it in their hearts to forgive me.
11:36 a.m. - Perry read more than a dozen letters for and against Mehserle, noting that some details were "flat-out wrong." Perry cited one letter that inaccurately described Grant as handcuffed when he was shot. Letters in support of the former officer stated that racial tensions had blown the case out of proportion.
Perry also noted another letter asked him to enact changes in law enforcement policy -- a request the judge said he was powerless to oblige.
If the judge doesn't grant a new trial, the victim's family members will get their chance to speak directly to Mehserle at the hearing. Grant's uncle, Cephus "Bobby" Johnson, who has become the family spokesman, said he's given much thought to what he will convey in court.
In court documents, Mehserle's girlfriend, only identified by initials, said she's had trouble telling the couple's son, who was born the day after the shooting, about his father.
"I tell (our son) his father loves him, but how do I explain to him that Johannes didn't just leave him behind?" she wrote.
11:27 a.m. - The Oakland School for the Arts is closed today for a "BART trial security precaution."
10 a.m. Judge said he received over a thousand letters requesting him to give Mehserle the maximum sentence - most referred to murder and he said people had the facts wrong and he was troubled by this - he also received letters from the other side asking him to show mercy on mehserle
Family will make statements now - five people from the grant family will make statements including grants mother - Uncle Bobby and Grant's girlfriend.
Mehserle will then make his statements, which is about a 10 minute statement according to his attorney mike raines and then judge will make his ruling.
Judge said he is troubled by the gun enhancement finding, which is why defense is asking for a new trial.