In a massive development in Johannes Mehserle's murder trial, Judge Robert Perry today gave jurors the option
of doing more than either convicting the former BART cop of cold-blooded murder or acquitting him outright for shooting dead unarmed passenger Oscar Grant.
Perry tossed out the possibility of a first-degree murder conviction -- which would have required jurors to buy that Mehserle committed premeditated murder in front of a platform full of witnesses. But Perry also gave the jury the option of convicting Mehserle of second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, or acquitting him. Contacted by SF Weekly
, longtime Berkeley civil rights attorney Jim Chanin, who has handled at least 25 police shooting cases, applauded the move.
"I doubt that we'll ever know for sure what really happened. But I don' t think there was evidence that justified a first-degree murder conviction," said Chanin. Either of the three remaining charges "is appropriate," noted the attorney.
Second-degree murder does not entail the degree of deliberation and premeditation of first-degree murder; the classic law school example is a New Year's reveler tossing a heavy rock off the top of a building into a crowd below. In legalese, it's a "non-premeditated killing resulting from an assault in which the death of the victim was a direct possibility."
It's a fine line between second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. And, finally, involuntary manslaughter requires a lack of intent to kill (could this be the end result of Mehserle's "I meant to Tase him!" defense?
While it requires an extreme worldview to consider that Mehserle was responsible for first-degree murder, many of the men and women who rioted in the streets of Oakland
last year espoused just such a notion. Will a conviction on a lesser charge lead to more rioting?
We may yet find out -- though Chanin hopes we don't.
"I have sued the Oakland Police Department at least 500 times in the last 30 years, including many wrongful deaths. I'm very painfully aware of what they do," said the lawyer. "But the bottom line is, the citizens of Oakland, the business people, and the small business owners -- they did not do this. They do not deserve this. And the Oakland Police Department didn't do this either." Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF