Monday, November 08, 2010

More Trouble with Tasers: The BART Shooter Sentenced


Johannes Mehserle was sentenced Friday for shooting young Oscar Grant in the back as he lay face down on the ground -- to the minimum sentence. When time served taken off, he could be out in seven months.

Of course we knew there would be riots. I don't approve of people rioting when a trial does not come out their way, but in this case I agree with the rioters that the sentence was probably not just. I have one very specific reason for saying that.

The judge and the jury found reasonable doubt that Mehserle intentionally shot Grant, that his own story -- that he mistakenly drew his gun thinking it was his Taser -- may well have been true. This makes sense to me. As I have said before, the intentional homicide version of events makes no sense and does not fit the above video of the tragic event. So far, I am with the judge and not with the rioters, who think Mehserle shot Grant for no reason other than that he was black.

Where the judge goes wrong is in holding that this is the only culpable mistake that Mehserle made. As it says in the above story, the judge maintains that "Mehserle would have been justified in using the Taser because Grant was resisting the attempts to handcuff him."

I cannot think of a scenario that is consistent with the images in the above video that would justify tasering. What appears to be happening is that Grant is extending an uncuffed arm straight behind him, while lying face down, and not moving that arm close enough to the other to permit its being cuffed. Look, whatever is going on there, would it justify punching Grant? Kicking him? Hitting him with a board? Of course not. Then why on Earth would it justify administering a sever electric shock?

Tasering someone is a violent act. One reason we have rules about when use of violence is reasonable and when it is not is that it has bad unforeseen consequences. People have died of heart attacks induced by tasers, or been injured by the fall tasering typically causes. One of the many bad things that can happen when a cop reaches for his/her taser is that they might mistakenly draw their gun and shoot someone.

I think Mehserle was wrong to reach for his taser in the first place. This is another reason, in addition to the one recognized by the judge, why he was criminally responsible for Grant's death, and I think it would have justified a heavier sentence than he got.
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