LOS ANGELES — A judge sentenced a white former transit officer to two years in prison Friday in the shooting death of an unarmed black man on a California train platform, angering friends and family members of the victim who wanted a much harsher punishment.
The case against defendant Johannes Mehserle has provoked racial unrest at every turn, and police in Oakland were on alert for more problems following a sentence that many thought was too light.
Mehserle observed Oscar Grant's hand going into the right-front pocket. Mehserle worried that Grant may be going for a gun. Mehserle decided to stop the action with a TASER.
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Some of the dozens of people who gathered outside Oakland City Hall for a tribute to victim Oscar Grant broke into tears when they learned of the judge's decision. Outside the Los Angeles courthouse, a small crowd that had earlier shouted "No justice, no peace" reacted relatively calmly to the sentence.
Grant's uncle, Bobby Cephus Johnson, said outside the courthouse that the family was reacting calmly but could not comment for others.
"I have no power over what people feel their matter of expression should be," he said.
Mehserle had faced a possible 14-year maximum term after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
The mother of Grant shouted, "Oh my!" when Superior Court Judge Robert Perry issued the two-year sentence in court.
In making his decision, Perry threw out a gun enhancement that could have added 10 years in prison and said there was overwhelming evidence that it was an accidental shooting.
"I did the best I could with this case," Perry told the courtroom. "My decisions today will not be well-received by many people. I'm sorry for that."
Police said they were prepared in case there was a replay of the rioting in Oakland that followed the shooting on New Year's Day 2009.
"This is on its face a very shocking outcome, but I must tell you I'm not surprised at all," family attorney John Burris said.
He acknowledged that a small step was taken by the justice system in sentencing Mehserle to two years, but he said that was insufficient. He said both he and Johnson noted that NFL star Michael Vick got a harsher sentence for running a dog-fighting ring.
"What you take from that is that Oscar Grant's life was not worth very much," Burris said.
Reaction to the case has drawn comparisons to the infamous 1991 Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers, which inflamed a racial divide and led to the disastrous 1992 riot when the officers were acquitted of brutality charges.
Mehserle was convicted in July in the videotaped, killing of the 22-year-old Grant in Oakland. The case was moved to Los Angeles for trial.
Perry had wide discretion when sentencing the 28-year-old Mehserle.
Prosecutors sought prison time for Mehserle, whose lawyers argued for probation.
Perry said Mehserle has served nearly 150 days in custody and with credit for time served, he has 293 days applied to his sentence, nearly cutting the sentence nearly in half.
Defense attorney Michael Rains filed an immediate appeal with the court.
Mehserle testified during the trial that he thought Grant had a weapon and decided to shock him with his stun gun but instead pulled his .40-caliber handgun. Grant was unarmed and face down when he was shot.
Sentencing came after four relatives of Grant and his fiancee pleaded with Perry to order Mehserle to prison for 14 years.
Wanda Johnson, Grant's mother, cried as she gave a victim impact statement.
"I live every day of my life in pain," she said. "My son is not here because of a careless action."
The family continues to maintain that it was murder when Mehserle shot Grant. Mehserle was a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer responding to a report of a fight.
Mehserle, shackled and wearing a jail jumpsuit, also stood before the judge before sentencing and apologized for the shooting, which he contended was accidental and not racially motivated.
"I want to say how deeply sorry I am," Mehserle said. "Nothing I ever say or do will heal the wound. I will always be sorry for taking Mr. Grant from them."
He also cried during portions of his 10-minute statement.
Earlier, the judge said he had received more than 1,000 letters urging a harsh sentence.
The judge also dismissed a defense motion for a new trial.
Prosecutors had sought a second-degree murder conviction, saying Mehserle became angry at Grant for resisting arrest.
However, jurors were given the choice of lesser charges, including voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. In reaching a decision on involuntary manslaughter, jurors found that Mehserle didn't mean to kill Grant, but his behavior was still so negligent that it was criminal.
Involuntary manslaughter has a sentencing range of two to four years, while the gun allegation carries a term of three, four or 10 years.
Perry had several options in sentencing Mehserle that include tossing out the gun enhancement that was written into law to punish robbers and other armed criminals.
Early in the day, before the sentencing, there was a scuffle outside the Los Angeles courthouse that led to at least one arrest. The exact circumstance were unclear but police said it occurred when members of the crowd supporting Grant's family recognized an undercover Los Angeles police officer who was leaving the building.
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Sheriff's deputies moved in after a verbal dispute escalated.