More than 350 people are killed in the U.S. each year by police officers. Prosecutors rarely file a murder charge, as they did against former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle, who shot an unarmed man early New Year’s Day on an Oakland train platform, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. If history is any guide, Mehserle has a good chance of avoiding serious punishment. The Chronicle found just six other cases in the past 15 years in which murder charges had been filed against officers who killed people in the line of duty. The cases, involving a total of 13 officers, typically resulted in large civil payouts to victims’ relatives. None of the officers was convicted of murder – and most were acquitted or cleared altogether. One pleaded no contest to manslaughter and got three years in prison. Another pleaded no contest to misdemeanor negligent homicide.
People involved in the cases in which police officers have been charged echoed a common theme: Jurors are reluctant to second-guess officers whom they see as doing a dangerous job. “There’s almost always something else going on that involves police work that would arguably justify use of force,” said Steve Schroering, an attorney who won acquittal for a Louisville, Ky., officer who killed a suspect in 2004. “The question,” he said, “becomes if too much force was used, which gets you into manslaughter or other lesser degrees of homicide.” Other common factors in acquittals included the presence of prominent defense attorneys; intense scrutiny of the victims and their role in sparking the confrontations; and intensive media coverage and community response, even rioting, that pressured prosecutors to file charges in cases difficult to win.