Soldier uncertain over Rachel Corrie death

Mark Weiss in Jerusalem

AN ISRAELI soldier who commanded a military bulldozer testified in court yesterday that he couldn’t be certain it was his vehicle that ran over Rachel Corrie in Gaza in 2003, killing the American peace activist.

The commander of the two-man bulldozer team told Haifa district court that he saw Ms Corrie and other activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who were wearing distinctive fluorescent vests, as they tried to prevent two Israeli bulldozers demolish Palestinian homes. However the soldier, identified as sergeant A.V., told the court he didn’t notice Ms Corrie moments before she was crushed by a bulldozer, and he wasn’t 100 percent sure which vehicle was responsible.

After her death, Rachel Corrie became a symbol for international activists struggling against the Israeli occupation. The Irish ship that tried to break Israel’s maritime blockade on Gaza in June was named the MV Rachel Corrie.

The Corrie family are demanding a symbolic $1 in punitive damages from the state of Israel for wrongful killing and negligence. Rachel’s parents, Craig and Cindy, and her sister, Sarah, were in court yesterday, to hear the soldier’s testimony, which was given behind a screen in order to protect his identity.

His story appeared to contradict the testimony given last month by the bulldozer driver who admitted it was his vehicle that crushed the peace activist.

The second witness who testified yesterday, the driver of the second bulldozer, denied statements he allegedly made in an affidavit given to military police in 2003.

The Israeli military maintained troops were not to blame for Rachel Corrie’s death and accused the ISM volunteers of “illegal, irresponsible, and dangerous” behaviour by protesting in Rafah close to the Egyptian border on March 16th, 2003, when the incident occurred.

Sarah Corrie said yesterday: “What we are hearing from witnesses seems to indicate problems, not only concerning statements on what happened on the day, but also a lack of a credible investigation over the last seven and a half years. Our own US government has said there has never been a thorough and credible investigation into the killing of my sister.” The trial is set to resume on December 22nd.

Mehserle verdict: Johannes Mehserle sentencing stuns Oscar Grant supporters, sparks riots in Oakland

Oscar Grant supporters cry foul and take to the streets after Mehserle verdict. The Johannes Mehserle sentencing of two years was shorter than it would have been if the gun enhancement law had been applied.

Demonstrator Eden Jequinto covers his face during a demonstration after the sentencing in Oakland, Calif., Friday, of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant at a BART station on Jan. 1, 2009. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry sentenced Mehserle to two years in prison. – Paul Sakuma/AP

By Chris Richardson, / November 5, 2010

Former cop Johannes Mehserle was sentenced Friday to two years in jail for the death of Oscar Grant – much less than he would have incurred had the judge applied California’s “gun enhancement” law that normally mandates heavy sentences when firearms are used in a crime.

The jury found, however, that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that Mr. Mehserle, a former BART police officer, believed the weapon he was using to subdue Grant was a taser, not a gun.

Mehserle had been called to the Fruitvale station of the BART system in the early hours of New Years Day last year with four other officers to look into reports of a fight on a train. Mehserle tried to arrest Grant but reported that Grant was not cooperating. Grant was on his stomach when Mehserle shot him in the back. The shooting was caught on video by another BART passenger and quickly went viral on Youtube.

RELATED: Five memorable Washington political protests

The jury deliberated Friday on whether Mehserle had intended to kill Grant. They acquitted him on second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, but convicted him on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Though involuntary manslaughter usually carries a four-year prison sentence, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry sentenced Mehserle to two years in state prison with 292 days of credit for time already served. The trial had been moved to Los Angeles because of concerns over media coverage in the Bay Area.

The case focused largely on whether or not to instate the gun enhancement law, which could have increased Mehserle sentence to 14 years.

The gun enhancement law automatically increases a sentence if a firearm is used in commission of a crime. The jury decided Friday, however, that Mehserle may have mistaken his gun for a taser, and therefore did not intend to fire a gun. Because the jury believed this to be the case, Judge Perry chose not to enact the gun enhancement law.

That decision stunned Oscar Grant supporters. A rally to honor Oscar Grant drew hundreds outside Oakland City Hall Friday, and banks, businesses, and City Hall boarded up windows and doors in anticipation of possible riots. UC Oakland evacuated buildings and courts closed early.

Outraged by the Mehserle verdict, Grant’s uncle compared the sentencing to Michael Vick’s conviction when he said Friday, “if a man goes to prison for killing a dog and he gets four years, then of course two years is not enough.”

Mehserle will be able to apply his 292 days of credit to the two year prison sentence and could be released from custody in as little as seven months.

As night fell in the city, protests against the light sentence turned violent. The Oakland PD reported that an officer had been hit by a car, another officer’s firearm holster had been taken from him, and numerous windows had been broken. More than 50 people were arrested after police subdued the crowds.

The view from abroad…

A demonstrator lies on the ground in protest after the sentencing in Oakland. (photo: AP)

A US court has given a minimum jail term of two years to a police officer who shot dead an unarmed black man in 2009, sparking massive public protests.

On Friday, hundreds of protesters poured into the streets of Oakland, California to protest against the court verdict, while police fended off rampaging protesters and arrested more than 100 people, many of whom expressed their outrage by throwing rocks at the police and smashing windows, the Associated Press reported.

The protests erupted after a Los Angeles court meted out a minimum two-year prison term to former San Francisco police officer Johannes Mehserle, who gunned down 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the Oakland subway last year.

Video footage captured by several witnesses shows Mehserle, who was white, firing one round into the back of Grant, who was black.

The verdict sent shock waves throughout the crowd, which had gathered outside Oakland City Hall in tribute to the victim. Many had expected a harsher sentence for the ex-cop, who had claimed he had meant to use his taser and had mistakenly fired his gun.

Earlier, Superior Court Judge Robert Perry said he had received more than 1,000 letters urging a harsh sentence.

Within minutes after the announcement of the verdict, Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother shouted, “Oh my! …He got nothing! He got nothing!”

The victim’s family and friends burst into tears as Grant’s uncle lashed out at the very foundation of the US court system, saying, “I do believe it’s a racist criminal justice system.”

Outside the Los Angeles courthouse, hundreds of people chanted “No justice, no peace.”

Meanwhile, police clashed with hundreds of demonstrators who reportedly smashed the windows of cars and buses. At least 100 protesters were arrested.

The police fear the case could presage a series of violent clashes and public demonstrations and become a lightening rod for further racial unrest across the United States.

Mehserle had faced a possible 14-year maximum sentence after being convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but the judge says he considered the 292 days the defendant has already spent behind bars.

The US police have been frequently accused of using excessive force against citizens, especially immigrants and African-Americans.

In 1991, the worldwide circulation of a videotape showing Los Angeles police officers repeatedly striking Rodney King, an African-American, triggered massive riots in Los Angeles.

The riots led to 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses.