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Kelly Thomas case: D.A. could face political fallout from acquittals

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and Justice

Not even Orange County’s top prosecutor himself could say with any certainty Tuesday whether the acquittal of two former police officers in a widely watched case will damage his political career or tarnish his legacy.

Tony Rackauckas, who tried former officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli himself, stuck to his position that the Kelly Thomas case deserved to be brought before a jury.

Still, the man who has been Orange County's district attorney for more than 15 years allowed that there could be political damage.

“I make the decisions that I have to make based on the merits of the individual cases and not based on political considerations,” Rackauckas said.

“But I understand there could be political fallout. I make the decisions. I do what I have to do and I’ll handle the politics as best I can.”

Stephen Stambough, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton, said it’s difficult to assess the kind of fallout Rackauckas could face from the acquittals.

While the perception of Orange County as a law-and-order kind of place is still common, the county is far more diverse than generally recognized and those in the county’s conservative strongholds will likely see the verdict differently than those who live in the county’s lower-income, more ethnically diverse and often more liberal communities, he said.

“Some people will just kind of calmly say it was the right decision. Other people will be very upset,” Stambough said. “Orange County is not the monolith that people think it still is.”

It’s possible that Rackauckas, who has said he will run for reelection this year, will get negative feedback from both sides — from those who thought he never should have filed the charges in the first place and those who are upset at the outcome.

“In the short run, the takeaway will be a negative sense. In the long run, it’s basically up to him,” Stambough said. “He needs to go out and confidently and strongly make the case — tout his record as a competent D.A.”

Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson commended Rackauckas for taking on the case.

“Who would want a D.A. who wouldn’t take a tough case because they’re tough to convict…that would be unacceptable,” Nelson said.

He predicted that the case won’t inflict long-term damage to Rackauckas’ reputation.

“I think people want a district attorney who's not just going to file the easy, popular cases. People want a D.A. who is going to file a case when he believes a crime has been committed, even if it’s a hard one.”

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