Image: A demonstrator is held by police as demonstrators face off with riot police in downtown Oakland
Peter Dasilva  /  EPA
A demonstrator is arrested Thursday during an Oakland, Calif., protest against the verdict in the case of Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle, convicted of involuntary manslaughter of unarmed, 22-year-old Oscar Grant.
updated 7/9/2010 6:41:24 PM ET 2010-07-09T22:41:24

The involuntary manslaughter conviction of a white former transit officer in the death of an unarmed black man set the stage for a sentencing that could be just as explosive as the trial depending on how the judge interprets the verdict.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry has a tremendous amount of discretion in handing down punishment Aug. 6 against Johannes Mehserle — anywhere from probation to 14 years.

A sentence on the low end could further inflame tensions among the hundreds of angry people who took to the streets of Oakland Thursday over what they believe should have been a murder conviction.

Those protesters could find some satisfaction in the way Perry decides to apply a finding by the jury that Mehserle used a gun to commit the crime.

Involuntary manslaughter convictions call for two to four years in prison, but Perry could tack on an additional three to 10 years due to the gun enhancement.

"I think he could get substantial time, by that I mean like six years," said John Barnett, a defense attorney from Orange County who represented one of four Los Angeles police officers acquitted of beating Rodney King in 1992. "There is going to be a lot of pressure to give him state prison."

In a handwritten letter released Friday, Mehserle suggested a possible prison term wouldn't be his only punishment for killing 22-year-old Oscar Grant.

He said he will forever "live, breathe, sleep and not sleep" with the memory of Grant dying on the train platform and "knowing that Mr. Grant should not have been shot."

Mehserle, 28, testified during his trial that he struggled with Grant and saw him digging in his pocket as officers responded to reports of a fight at a train station.

Fearing Grant may have a weapon, Mehserle said he decided to shock Grant with his Taser but mistakenly pulled his .40-caliber handgun. Grant was shot as he lay face-down.

Prosecutors wanted Johannes Mehserle convicted of murdering Grant.

Instead, jurors decided Mehserle didn't mean to kill Grant, but his behavior was still so negligent that it was criminal.

Image: Oscar Grant
AP file
Oscar Grant, 22, is the transit rider shot and killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Year's Day 2009.

The judge has the option of tossing out the gun enhancement, though experts say that seems unlikely because of Perry's no-nonsense reputation on the bench.

Legal experts also said a sentence of probation appears remote, especially since Mehserle was taken into custody immediately after the verdict and booked into the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail, where he will be kept apart from the general population.

"It is probably politically difficult to give him probation," Santa Clara University law professor Edward Steinman said.

Mehserle was arrested two weeks after the shooting and has remained free after posting $3 million bail in February 2009, meaning he would have no credit for time served if he is sentenced to prison.

Some experts doubt that Mehserle will receive the maximum sentence and question whether an on-duty police officer should be punished with additional state prison time for using a service weapon.

The gun enhancement law was passed to additionally punish armed muggers, robbers and other criminals for endangering lives during their crimes.

Using it in a shooting death that resulted in an involuntary manslaughter conviction is redundant and illogical, said Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg.

"There is a real ambiguity here," Weisberg said. "This is an odd application of the statute."

Mehserle could be facing more than state prison time if a civil rights investigation planned by the U.S. Justice Department leads to charges and a federal conviction.

Image: People loot a Foot Locker store
Noah Berger  /  AP
People loot a Foot Locker store in Oakland following the verdict.

In a move reminiscent of the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles, federal authorities said they will investigate the shooting.

Federal officials stepped into the King case after a state court jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers in 1992 of using excessive force, touching off three days of riots, 53 deaths and more than $1 billion in damage.

The two officers convicted of federal civil rights violations in the King beating were each sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. A federal jury acquitted the two other officers.

The verdict against Mehserle enflamed emotions in Oakland, where 30 businesses were damaged and 78 people were arrested for violations that included failure to disperse, vandalism and assaulting a police officer.

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Protesters looted an athletic footwear store and ransacked a jewelry shop. The windows of a bank were smashed, fires were set fires in several trash bins, and a small incendiary device was detonated near a police station but caused no damage.

The trial of Mehserle, who resigned from the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency after the shooting, was moved to Los Angeles following rioting in Oakland after Grant was killed. The latest demonstrations appeared to be much less severe, even though police did not immediately release a damage estimate.

In Washington state, vandals smashed the windows of a patrol car parked outside a Tacoma police officer's home and spray-painted the words "Oscar Grant was here" on the car.

University of California, Berkeley law school professor Erin Murphy said she could understand the outrage of the community, but the verdict seemed a reasonable conclusion to the trial.

"I think the prosecution from the beginning had a major hurdle," Murphy aid. "Why would a police officer execute someone in public in front of everyone?"

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Video: BART officer apologizes for shooting

Photos: Cop verdict sparks violence

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  1. Aidge Patterson, center, with LA Coalition for Oscar Grant, addresses the crowd after the jury delivered a verdict to convict Johannes Mehserle in the killing of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in Los Angeles, Thursday, July 8. The white former transit officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Oscar Grant on an Oakland train platform in a 2009 encounter that set off days of rioting in the city. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Wanda Johnson, center, mother of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was killed by white former transit officer Johannes Mehserle, speaks during a news conference on Thursday in Los Angeles, where a jury convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter in Grant's shooting death. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Supporters of Oscar Grant hold signs as a small group of demonstrators protested the verdict of involuntary manslaughter against Grant's killer, off-duty BART police officer Johannes Mehserle, in the south central Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park. (Mike Nelson / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. People react angrily in Oakland after the verdict in one of the most racially polarizing cases in California since four Los Angeles officers were acquitted in 1992 in the beating of Rodney King is read on Thursday. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A demonstrator sits on the street in front of police in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, during a protest after the involuntary manslaughter verdict was given. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Protesters gather after the involuntary manslaughter verdict. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Police hold back protesters following the verdict. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Protesters chase back a police car after the verdict. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. An unidentified demonstrator lies injured on the street after being hit by a retreating unmarked Oakland Police car. (Peter Dasilva / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hundreds of protesters take over an intersection in Oakland, Calif. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A protester breaks a window at a Sears store during a demonstration in Oakland, Calif., after a guilty verdict for Johannes Mehserle, was announced. (Paul Sakuma / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A man celebrates as dumpsters burn Thursday night. (Noah Berger / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A demonstrator is arrested during a protest against the verdict. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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