LOS ANGELES -- Johannes Mehserle will likely serve seven more months in prison for killing Oscar Grant III after a judge's ruling Friday dismissed a key part of a confusing jury verdict that could have landed the 28-year-old former BART police officer in prison for as long as 14 years.
In making his decision, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry acknowledged that the sentence would anger Grant's family and possibly much of the Bay Area but said, "I did the best I could with this case."
Perry said the evidence presented during the trial was "simply overwhelming" in favor of Mehserle's claim that he made a mistake in shooting the 22-year-old Hayward man by confusing his gun with his Taser. He added that the prosecution's examples, which it argued pointed toward a fabricated story, were "insufficient."
Given his opinions about the evidence, and the jury's verdict of involuntary manslaughter, Perry said that "no reasonable trier of fact could have concluded" that Mehserle intended to use his gun early Jan. 1, 2009.
As a result, Perry said, he was mandated by law to dismiss a jury finding that Mehserle is guilty of a gun enhancement and by doing so he immediately lowered Mehserle's possible term in prison to four years.
But Perry said the four-year term was too harsh for a defendant who, contrary to statements by Grant's family, has shown remorse. It was also too harsh a penalty for a defendant who did not bear sole responsibility
"Many people contributed to the tragedy in this case," Perry said as he listed various figures in the incident, including Grant for fighting on the train and BART for failing to train its officers properly. "I made the ruling because I believe it is in justice to do so."
Cephus Johnson, Grant's uncle, felt otherwise.
"Today we saw the best example of what we already believed," Johnson said. "It's a racist criminal justice system. There can be no peace without justice."
As Perry predicted, Michael Rains, Mehserle's defense attorney, said he, too, was not pleased with the decision.
Rains had argued that his client should receive probation and said after the sentencing that he would appeal the involuntary manslaughter conviction.
"Some of you might think that we have a reason to be happy. Johannes Mehserle is still in custody; he is still behind bars," Rains said. "I will not rest until he is out."
Although Perry sentenced Mehserle to two years in prison, it is likely that he will only serve about seven months.
But Rains said he will argue on appeal that Mehserle should be released on bail during theappeals process and that the jury verdict of involuntary manslaughter should not stand.
Rains also took a shot at the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, saying it will be "the biggest culprit in setting the city on fire" because it needlessly led residents toward a belief that Mehserle intended to pull out his gun and kill Grant.
"It has been an act of irresponsibility," Rains said of the decision to charge his client with murder. "The District Attorney's Office of Alameda County should be ashamed of itself."
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley issued a statement asking for calm.
"It is the sincere hope of the District Attorney's Office that our community can continue to build on our strength and our commitment to equal justice so that this tragedy will never be repeated," O'Malley said. "The District Attorney's Office, along with law enforcement partners, community leaders and community partners, will foster the dialogue that strives for peace and nonviolence."
Perry's decision came after more than four hours of legal arguments and emotional testimony from Grant's uncle, aunt, mother, fiancee and sister. It also came after Mehserle spoke and after attorneys for the defense and prosecution argued over various legal issues surrounding the verdict and the potential sentence.
In front of a packed courtroom and standing just behind a shackled Mehserle, Grant's family begged Perry to give Mehserle the maximum sentence of 14
Mehersle sat stoic in his orange Los Angeles County Jail jumpsuit as Grant's family issued their pleas. The former Lafayette resident showed no emotion until he stood and spoke to the court saying he was sorry for what happened.
At one point, Johnson was cut off by Perry when he began to shout his disapproval with the judge who had indicated that a mistake was made in allowing the jury to consider a gun enhancement against Mehserle and that he might not allow it to stand.
"To lose our right to justice because of your judicial error will raise significant questions about our criminal justice system," Johnson said as his voice rose and tears formed in his eyes. "We should not lose this case because of you."
Grant's other relatives also questioned the equality of the criminal justice system and talked of how Grant's death has damaged them emotionally.
Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, could barely finish her speech to Perry as she broke down in sobs as she discussed how she received a phone call early Jan. 1, 2009, and was told her son had been shot.
"I live every day of my life in pain, my son is not here," she said, crying. "The people that were supposed to protect and serve were the ones that took his life."
Jack Bryson, the father of two of Grant's friends who were on the Fruitvale BART station platform and saw Grant get shot, twice walked out of the courtroom when Perry began. Wanda Johnson also left the courtroom with Grant's sister after Perry declared that he would not allow the gun enhancement to stand.
Perry said that he understood the pain Grant's family had endured and the long-held skepticism many minority communities feel toward the criminal justice system, but he said he could not solve the problems with one ruling.
"I can't transform law enforcement. I am just one judge out of many judges doing my best," Perry said.
"I heard genuine pain in Mr. Johnson's voice that there was a possibility that the court might let him down," Perry continued. "Mr. Johnson, we are doing the best we can."
Perry said he was also disheartened to see that the community remained polarized over the killing and that race continued to be a factor into people's emotions even though evidence in the case showed race played no role.
And the judge said he was upset that people continued to make points about the case that were not true.
"It is obvious to this court that the community is greatly polarized, and, in my view, that is a tragedy of this case," Perry said. "I cannot and will not allow consideration of race to impact my view; based on the evidence this is not a case about race."