Defending “The Man”

Congratulations to defense attorney Michael Rains and the defense team for Johannes Mehserle on getting a verdict of involuntary manslaughter for the shooting of Oscar Grant. I didn’t follow the case closely, but based on the headlines I’ve heard, the defense must have been amazing to get this result. Example:

The verdict followed a three-week trial in which prosecutors played videos by bystanders, and witnesses recounted hearing the frightening gunshot that killed Grant.
At least five bystanders videotaped the incident
Mehserle, 28, testified 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 pulled his .40-caliber handgun instead.

It’s easy for criminal defense attorneys to see police as the enemy — it’s the cops who stop and arrest our clients, the cops who testilie and put our clients in jail and prison — so defending a police officer could be a moral challenge for some defense attorneys. Apparently not for Mr. Rains.

On the other hand, the reason the state wins so often is because judges and juries tend to believe cops over everyone else no matter what the other evidence suggests. With that in mind, I’m sure people will argue that the defense work here was just a matter of showing up and not screwing anything up too badly. (Imagine, for example, that the facts were reversed and Mehserle was the civilian who shot a police officer — getting involuntary manslaughter on that would really be amazing.) But even a serious jury bias in favor of the police cannot explain this verdict. The defense team convinced a jury that Mehserle confused his gun with his taser. That’s completely unbelievable, not only because the gun definitely weighs far more than the taser, but because an officer carries these two weapons in different places. It’s not like they are identical and sit side-by-side on his hip. Finally, Mehserle didn’t come up with this defense at the scene, nor was there any evidence that he was claiming this mistake until after he’d talked to his attorney. The fact that the jury came in with an involuntary verdict on those facts is nothing short of amazing.

The San Francisco Chronicle is trying to dampen public unrest by arguing that this was the appropriate verdict. Perhaps it was, but even if so, that doesn’t make it easier to accept that a cop gets a slap on the wrist for shooting a man in the back for no reason.

Anyway, great job, Mr. Rains, great job.