An Orange County jury returned a unanimous not-guilty verdict Tuesday in favor of two former Fullerton, California police officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, who had been charged with murder and manslaughter arising from the July 5, 2011 death of Kelly Thomas, a hapless 37-year-old schizophrenic living on the streets of the Southern California suburb, located near Disneyland.
After deliberating less than a full day, the eight female and four male jurors exonerated both defendants despite repeated viewings of the graphic video, which shows multiple punches, kicks, chest compressions and tasings over a nine-minute period.
Paramedics resuscitated Thomas and rushed him to the hospital, where he arrived comatose. He survived for five days, until his condition became hopeless and life support measures were terminated.
The medical examiner determined that Thomas’s death was caused when four to six police officers piled onto his chest. That, along with profuse bleeding from his nose and face, cut off oxygen to his brain.
The video caused an uproar. Three members of the Fullerton City Council were recalled after they initially tried to defend the officers’ actions. Ultimately, the officers were fired and the Fullerton Chief of Police was forced into retirement.
The victim’s father, Ron Thomas—himself a former police officer—campaigned relentlessly for the officers to be criminally prosecuted. Two months after the incident, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced the filing of murder and manslaughter charges against three of the six officers. In a highly unusual move, Rackauckas personally presented the case against the first two officers rather than delegating the task to one of his deputies, although he had not tried a case in 15 years.
Rackauckas announced that, in light of the verdict, charges against a third officer, Joseph Wolfe, will be dismissed.
The victim’s parents, Ron and Cathy Thomas, were visibly disturbed when the verdicts were read late yesterday afternoon, and family members could be heard sobbing.
Ron Thomas denounced the verdict immediately as “a miscarriage of justice.” He added, “It’s so blatant. It means none of us are safe.”
“I’m just horrified. They got away with murdering my son,” Cathy Thomas said. “He was so innocent. It just isn’t fair at all. I guess it’s legal to go out and kill now.”
On talk radio less than an hour later, Ron Thomas alluded to the social divide in Orange County, a highly affluent and politically conservative enclave south of Los Angeles.
The parents’ comments speak to issues much larger than this case. The jury’s sanctioning of such blatant police violence is reminiscent of the recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, the vigilante who murdered Trayvon Martin. That Thomas was white and Martin black demonstrates that the social and class issues predominate over the preoccupation with race that dominated much of the discussion following the Martin travesty.
The prosecution focused on the video recording, which it synchronized with the belt recorders worn by the officers creating a sometimes grainy visual with clear sound.
Apparently, the incident was triggered by a phony crime report made from a local restaurant to remove Thomas, who was well known in the area as “Crazy Kelly,” so that he would not offend diners. Ramos, who knew Thomas from prior encounters, found him sitting harmlessly on a bench at the nearby Fullerton bus depot. During several minutes of often irrational banter, Ramos accused Thomas of “rattling car doors” in the parking lot. After Thomas refused to sit still with his legs stretched out in front of him and his hands on his knees, as Ramos demanded, Ramos put on latex gloves and said: “Now, see my fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up.”
When Thomas stood and moved away, Ramos tackled him, punching his ribs. Other officers joined in. Cicinelli fired his Taser darts into Thomas, shocking him repeatedly with the electrical current. Cicinelli then removed the cartridge and burned Thomas’s flesh with the bare Taser electrodes—the so-called “drive stun” technique—and then beat him over the head with the Taser handle. Other officers, not on trial, hit him with batons and suffocated him with their body weight.
Thomas can be heard crying out during the beating, “I’m sorry dude, I’m sorry,” “I can’t breathe, dude,” and, finally, “Help me, Dad, help me.” Those were his last words.
The trial began on December 2, and moved through the testimony of 25 witnesses in less than four weeks. There was a two-week hiatus for the holidays, and then several days of closing arguments before the jury received the case last week.
None of the several eyewitnesses who saw the beating testified. Instead, all the prosecution evidence was presented through investigators and expert witnesses. As in the Zimmerman trial, police witnesses openly sympathized with the defense. The first prosecution witness, Fullerton Police Captain Lorraine Jones, for example, said she knew Cicinelli for years, that he “had a good reputation,” “was well-respected and handled calls appropriately.”
Fullerton Police Corporal Stephen Rubio, an internal affairs investigator called by the defense, testified that the video recording did not show any violation of Fullerton Police Department policy, except that perhaps Ramos should not have used profanity.
While no juror has yet spoken on the deliberations or the reasons for their decisions, the fact that certain officers, including those responsible for asphyxiating Thomas with their body weight, were not charged, no doubt contributed to the result.