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Intention: The Shooting Death Of Oscar Grant

August 16, 2010

Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit Police officer January 1st last year.  He was in handcuffs, face down on the train platform when Johannes Mehserle shot him once in the back.  Six different cell phone cameras captured the unimaginable, and once again, the video doesn’t lie.

After a year and a half, Johannes Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary homicide.  The verdict was an all-but-unprecedented instance of a police officer being convicted for an on-duty shooting. But it deeply disappointed thousands across the country, including Grant’s relatives, who said the shooting was a murder and that Mehserle deserved a sentence years longer than the one he is likely to receive.

Involuntary manslaughter carries a sentence of 2 to 4 years.  That Mehserle used a gun could add an additional 10 years.

I wanted to see Oscar Grants killer found guilty.  That said, I’m also conflicted.  A conviction of second degree murder would have meant the officer intended to kill him.  On the other hand, involuntary manslaughter means the jury concluded he did not intend to kill Grant when he shot him in the back, but acted so recklessly that he showed a disregard for Grant’s life.

It comes down to the intent of the shooter.  His defense team argued Johannes Mehserle intended to reach for his taser and not his department issued hand gun.

It’s a likely scenario I can understand- which- as someone who wanted justice in this case, isn’t a popular opinion.

That doesn’t mean what he did should or even could be excused.  It doesn’t reduce the fact that Black men are unjustifiably shot and killed by law enforcement all too often.

But here’s a hard truth: we all have inherent prejudices against Black men.  We filter these prejudices through their behavior and respond accordingly.  Most of these reactions are subconscious, we’re hardly aware of the knee jerk reactions we have.  For members of law enforcement, Black or White, the result is a disproportionate level of excessive force force.  That Black men are perceived as a threat means they are treated as a threat.

That was the case with Oscar Grant.  When Mehserle reacted to Oscar Grant he did so because he believed the 22 year old Black man handcuffed chest down on the ground under him, by nature, was still a danger.

Whatever he intended to do, whichever weapon he intended to reach for, he grabbed his gun.  He shot and killed a man. His recklessness should earn him the maximum sentence.

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