(AP) LOS ANGELES – A white former San Francisco Bay area transit officer convicted in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man that has drawn continuing protest was released from jail early Monday after serving one year of a two-year sentence, officials said.
Johannes Mehserle managed to slip away from the Los Angeles County’s Twin Towers jail shortly after midnight unseen by a few protesters in the street as well as waiting reporters.
Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore told The Associated Press that Mehserle was freed from custody at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
Mehserle’s attorney, Michael Rains, told KTVU-TV on Monday that precautions were taken because there were too many safety concerns to let his client just walk out of jail.
When asked if Mehserle can go home again, Rains said sounded optimistic.
“Well, we don’t know. We’ll know more about that in the next 10 days to two weeks,” Rains said. “We hope he will be able to go home because he has always called Northern California home and he really doesn’t want to call any place else home.
“But if he can’t go home, he’s going to call another place home and he will go there with his family and he will live a productive life.” Mehserle, 29, was convicted last July of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Grant, 22, on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train station platform in Oakland on New Year’s Day 2009.
He served his time in Los Angeles after his attention-getting trial was moved to Southern California.
The shooting continues to spark debate, racial tension and occasional protests that have turned violent. Last fall, more than 150 people were arrested in Oakland hours after Mehserle’s sentencing.
On Sunday, about 300 protesters held a fairly peaceful demonstration in downtown Oakland as they vented their continued frustration over the shooting and the Mehserle’s release.
“The people know it was wrong,” said Jabari Shaw, 32, a protester who had also attended Mehserle’s trial. “As much as we want justice, we’re still not getting it.”
A judge ruled Friday that Mehserle should be given credit for time served and good conduct.
The shooting was recorded by bystanders, and video posted online showed the Bay Area Rapid Transit officer firing a bullet into the back of Grant, 22, as he lay face down after being pulled off a train, suspected of fighting.
The videos were subsequently used as evidence during Mehserle’s murder trial and posted online, further stoking the racial tensions brought on by the shooting.
Facing a second-degree murder charge and a maximum 14 years in prison, Mehserle tearfully testified at his trial that he meant to use his stun gun instead of his .40-caliber pistol.
Jurors found that while Mehserle didn’t mean to kill Grant, his behavior was so negligent that it was criminal. He received a two-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter.
Grant’s uncle, Cephus “Bobby” Johnson, was among those waiting in vain outside the L.A. County jail late Sunday night to witness Mehserle’s release.
“There’s much rage in our community,” he said. “It’s a shame that our children still have fear from police officers that come into our communities.”
Grant supporters in Los Angeles later Monday plan to march to the U.S. Attorney’s office and demand that the Department of Justice look into possible federal civil rights violation.
A civil lawsuit against Mehserle and several other officers involved with Grant’s shooting is still pending.
Grant’s family attorney, John Burris, on Sunday urged the Oakland crowd before their march downtown to remain peaceful as they exercised their freedom of speech.
“There’s still an opportunity for all of us to continue our sense of outrage, our sense of frustration at the (criminal justice) system and do what we can through public speaking, through organizing, community involvement to continue his legacy,” Burris said.