The always vocal Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland had a message for fellow Oakland residents Thursday. Photo: Arlett on Flickr
A white former transit officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter Thursday in the videotaped shooting death of an unarmed black man on an Oakland train platform in an encounter that set off days of rioting in the city.
Prosecutors had wanted Johannes Mehserle convicted of murdering 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot once in the back as he lay face-down.
The jury's conviction on the lesser charge raised concerns of a repeat of the unrest that followed the shooting on New Year's Day in 2009.
At least five bystanders videotaped the incident in what was among the most racially polarizing cases in California since four Los Angeles officers were acquitted in 1992 in the beating of Rodney King.
A crowd near Oakland City Hall moaned and cursed when they heard the verdict. About 500 people, decrying what they called a lack of justice, later marched past police officers in riot gear and businesses that had boarded up windows as a precaution.
During a press briefing, Chief Anthony Batts described the protest as mostly peaceful and said no arrests had been made, although a small incendiary device had been set off near his department's downtown station. It caused no damages or injuries, he said.
He also said one person suffered a leg injury when "a small portion of the crowd" started throwing rocks and bottles.
Other streets in Oakland were deserted after workers went home early in anticipation of possible riots. Officers were on alert in case the situation deteroriated after dark.
The anger is directed at the involuntary manslaughter conviction -- the lowest offense Mehserle faced. The charge carries a sentence of two to four years, although the judge could add 10 more years because a gun was used in the killing.
"My son was murdered! He was murdered! He was murdered," said Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, who earlier stared at jurors when the verdict was read.
Mehserle was taken away in handcuffs. He turned to his family and mouthed, "I love you, guys," as his parents wept.
One female juror wiped tears with a tissue when the panel was polled on its decision.
The verdict followed a three-week trial in which prosecutors played videos by bystanders, and witnesses recounted hearing the frightening gunshot that killed Grant.
Mehserle, 28, testified that he struggled with Grant and saw him digging in his pocket as officers responded to reports of a fight at a train station. Fearing Grant may have a weapon, Mehserle said he decided to shock Grant with his Taser but pulled his .40-caliber handgun instead.
Grant has become a martyr of sorts in a city where more than a third of residents are black. His omnipresent image on buildings and storefront windows arguably rivals that of slain hometown rapper Tupac Shakur.
The trial was moved from Alameda County to Los Angeles because of racial tension and extensive media coverage in Oakland.
Alameda County District Attorney Nance E. O'Malley said in a statement that while the jury did not agree with the prosecution's belief that it was murder, the panel also rejected the defense contention that Mehserle had no criminal liability.
"The case is a tragedy in every respect. Oscar Grant should never have been killed at the hands of a sworn officer," O'Malley said.
The case was a rare instance in which a police officer stood trial for an on-duty killing and that was captured on video from so many different angles.
The jury had a choice between murder and lesser charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. The jury found that Mehserle didn't mean to kill Grant, but that his behavior was still so negligent that it was criminal.
"It's not real, it's not real. Where's the justice? He was killed in cold blood," 23-year-old Amber Royal of Oakland said as a crowd near City Hall moaned and cursed when they heard the verdict. A dozen people gathered in a semicircle to pray.
Grant family attorney John Burris said they were "extremely disappointed" with the verdict.
"This verdict is not a true representation of what happened to Oscar Grant. This was not an involuntary manslaughter case," Burris said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement urging Californians to remain calm and not resort to violence. Schwarzenegger said he had informed Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums the state was well prepared to assist in maintaining order.
"As we have come to notice, and we as a family has been slapped in the face by a system that has denied us a right to true justice," said Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle. "We truly do not blame the jury, but we blame the system."
Legal experts said the verdict shows the jury sympathized with Mehserle's version of events.
Prosecutors had a huge hurdle to overcome in convincing a jury that an officer with a spotless record meant to kill, even with video of the killing, said University of California, Berkeley, law school professor Erin Murphy.
"I think it's a lesson that video can only get us so far," Murphy said.
Defense attorney Michael Rains contended the shooting was a tragic accident. Mehserle had no motive to shoot Grant, even though he was resisting arrest, the lawyer argued.
Rains also said Mehserle told a colleague before the shooting: "Tony, Tony, Tony, I can't get his hands. I'm going to Tase him."
Rains did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Fallout from the shooting was swift in Oakland after the videos were shown on television and the Internet. The shooting and the nearly two weeks it took to arrest Mehserle sent the city into a tailspin of violence as downtown businesses were damaged, cars were set ablaze and clashes erupted between protesters and police.
Grant had recently been released from jail after being sentenced to 16 months for a gun possession charge filed after he ran from police and was subdued by an officer with a stun gun.
The jury included eight women and four men. None listed their race as black. Seven said they were white, three were Latino, and one was Asian-Pacific. One declined to state their race.