Hundreds of protesters took to the streets on Friday, some breaking windows and knocking down fences, after a white former transit officer was given the minimum possible prison sentence of two years for fatally shooting an unarmed black man on a California train platform.
The case against defendant Johannes Mehserle has provoked racial unrest at every turn, and police in Oakland, the scene of the killing, were on alert for more problems following a sentence many residents thought was too light.
Police in riot gear arrested more than 100 people on Friday night after a rally billed as a tribute to the victim, Oscar Grant, turned into a march through the downtown area, where demonstrators broke car and bus windows.
Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts said the protest was declared an illegal assembly after one officer had his gun taken from him in a fight and another officer was hit by a car and suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
Mehserle’s sentence, handed down in Los Angeles, also angered the victim’s family and friends, who felt a much harsher punishment was warranted.
Grant’s uncle, Bobby Cephus Johnson, said outside court: “I do believe it’s a racist criminal justice system.”
Mehserle, 28, had faced a possible 14-year maximum term after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter. At the time of the shooting, Mehserle was a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer responding to a report of a fight.
In making his decision during the highly charged, 3-hour hearing, Superior Court Judge Robert Perry threw out a gun enhancement that could have added as much as 10 years in prison and said there was overwhelming evidence that it was an accidental shooting.
Perry said race would not factor into his decision and although Mehserle had shown “tons of remorse” for killing Grant, he would have to account that a “young man needlessly died.”
Mayor Ron Dellums said he understood the pain and disappointment sparked by the sentence.
Johnson family attorney John Burris acknowledged a small step was taken by the justice system in sentencing Mehserle to two years, but he said that was insufficient. Both Burris and Bobby Johnson noted that National Football League 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.
Mehserle was convicted in July in the videotaped killing of Grant, 22, in Oakland. The case was moved to Los Angeles for trial.
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.
Mehserle 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.”