At the Compass Rose, one of our firm convictions is that the new Taser weapon technology was a very bad idea from the start, and the trend across the nation of adopting these new "stun" guns for common use by municipal police department forces in the field opens a whole new sphere for potential abuse of legal authority.
In the Mehserle case, a young, inexperienced Bay Area Rapid Transit officer was called into a scene as a back-up, to assist in quelling a near-riot on the Oakland Line train and platform. When he arrived, the situation was only partially resolved, and several obstreperous young African American males, identified as primary participants in the melee, were in the process of being detained, and arrested. Mehserle was not aware of whether these men were armed or unarmed, and in the general confusion, with BART patrons screaming and milling about very nearby, the situation verged on chaos. At any moment, members of the crowd might riot, and given this tension, if any of the young hooligans involved in the incident had been armed, any or all of the officers would have been at great risk.
I am not a lawyer, and I can't debate the various remedies proposed by the Prosecution or Judge in Los Angeles. Apparently, the jury has been instructed to waive a possible Murder One conviction, since Mehserle could not be shown to have premeditated the act. However, there appear to be a couple of obvious things to note.
1) Mehserle did not intend to shoot Grant with his pistol. You would have to believe that Mehserle was either mentally deranged--a diagnosis that no one (including the Prosecution) has suggested--or that, under the pressure of the moment, he simply went haywire and, in full view of his fellow officers, and a large crowd of witnesses, he "decided" to use lethal force. A mental incapacity defense might have been one possible choice among those available to Mehserle, but it was decided not to employ this, since Mehserle had no history of mental instability.
2) Given his behavior at the scene of the crime, stating his complete surprise in the confusion of the moment that he had in fact shot Grant with his pistol, instead of his Taser, it's inconsistent with a belief that he acted deliberately and with malice. It's much more likely, given the circumstances, that he mistook his service revolver for his Taser weapon, and used one thinking it was the other.
Locally, there's been a good deal of public sentiment directed at Mehserle. The African American community has risen up in protest against what it sees as a "racist" act of violence, and has threatened to riot if the verdict doesn't satisfy their sense of justice. I find this all a little odd.
Following the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, public sentiment was neatly divided along racial lines. The White community believed that Simpson had escaped justice, in being found not guilty on technical grounds (for the premeditated knifing murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman). Though Simpson had clearly done the deed (blood of the victims was found in his car), the African American community preferred to think that justice had been served, and were satisfied that one of their own could get away with a crime, just as they believed white people routinely did in our system of justice. It didn't seem to concern them that systemic corruption isn't made all right by performing more corruption within the system.
Having tried Mehserle and found him guilty, the African American community now apparently wants to see real "justice" in the form of a murder conviction, and if they don't get it they've threatened to riot in protest. Business owners and public service establishments in Oakland are preparing for the worst, nailing up plywood barriers over their street fronts.
Personally, I don't think Mehserle intended to kill Oscar Grant. If he had wanted to disable Grant, he could obviously have shot him in the leg or shoulder; shooting him directly in the back supports his allegation that he was using the stun gun, and not his pistol. I think of him as a victim of circumstances, and guilty (at most) of poor judgment, or perhaps poor performance. But Oscar Grant--despite what you may think of him as a man--did not deserve to die--in the way he did---even if he had been packing a weapon. An involuntary manslaughter conviction is probably the best outcome we could hope for here.
But the real issue here is the use of Tasers. Even if you believe that Mehserle's testimony about his confusion between weapons is a fabrication, it's a fabrication built upon opportunity, and that opportunity was made possible by the department's policy of authorizing the carrying of Tasers by its officers.
As long as these dangerous toys continue to be used by officers in the street, there will be abuse of them, and further instances of the kind of "confusion" that happened in the Mehserle case.
Tasers must be outlawed!