January 30th, 2009

Mehserle and murder/manslaughter?

Bay area residents are probably familiar with Johannes Mehserle by now-- he's the (white) BART police officer who killed a (black) BART rider on NYE. Phonecam videos quickly emerged showing that the victim was shot in the back while being held face-down on the pavement by other officers. It appears that the whole thing was mishandled pretty badly by BART, but Mehserle was eventually arrested on murder charges.

It appears that there's some reasonable amount of evidence that his intent was to use his taser on the victim, and in the heat of the moment he pulled his gun and fired instead. The victim was definitely resisting and struggling.

It seems quite clear that he is guilty of something-- at the very least, of being a dumbshit. Is murder the right charge? I'm trying to figure out how this is going to play out, and I see a few likely outcomes:

- He's charged with murder and acquitted
- He's charged with manslaughter and convicted
- He's charged with murder and plea bargains to manslaughter

Things I think are less likely:

- He's charged with murder and convicted
- He's charged with manslaughter and acquitted

There are also certainly wildcard outcomes-- he dies in jail, skips the country, whatever.

I have no clue... is it possible, for him to be charged with murder and wind up convicted of manslaughter? Or is it a case where the state has to gamble on picking the right level and if they guess too high they lose?

I started thinking about this in terms of what will happen in my neighborhood under various circumstances. An acquittal is clearly the worst-case outcome-- we'd get pretty serious riots. A manslaughter conviction would certainly have people upset, but not to the same extent that they would be if he goes free-- we'll say protests with a chance of riot showers. A murder conviction will make the protesters happy, likely leading to partying the streets and scattered scuffles.

If you were the DA here, what would you do?