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Kelly Thomas trial: 'Not guilty' verdicts a blow to D.A.

Crime, Law and JusticeLaw EnforcementHomicideCrimeJustice SystemUnrest, Conflicts and WarBoxing

Two former Fullerton police officers accused of beating a homeless man to death in a crowded bus depot  were found not guilty on all charges Monday, ending a case prosecutors said offered jurors an opportunity to send the public a "message."

Both Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli lowered their heads as the verdicts were read. The family of the homeless man, Kelly Thomas, sobbed as the court clerk read the "not guilty" verdicts.

The verdict comes after three weeks of testimony but only one full day of jury deliberation.

The 2011 altercation in Fullerton was captured on a grainy black-and-white surveillance tape, which became the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case.

The tape, or portions of it, were played repeatedly for jurors. During closing arguments, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas simply played the audio portion of the tape in which Thomas can be heard yelling for help.

While Rackauckas said the tape gave jurors a real-time sense of a homicide taking place, defense attorneys said the video actually showed that Thomas was the aggressor, fighting the officers so fiercely that they had to call for backup several times.

Defense attorneys said their clients should not be convicted for simply doing their jobs. Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, told reporters: "These peace officers were doing their jobs... They did what they were trained to do."

It was a rare case for law-and-order Orange Count,y and the district attorney staked his reputation to the outcome.

Rackauckas accused the two officers of killing Thomas during what appeared to begin as a routine police encounter in a bustling bus depot on a warm July night.

Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Rackauckas said prosecutors would not pursue charges against a third  officer accused in the case. That officer's trial was pending.

Thomas’ death led to political upheaval in the college town, with street protests, raucous council meetings, the sudden departure of the city’s police chief and the successful recall of several City Council members. Thomas’ father and mother sat through most of the trial.

During the trial, Rackauckas continually circled back to a place in the video that he said was the tipping point between acceptable police conduct and criminal behavior.

In the sequence, Ramos is captured slipping on a pair of latex gloves and telling Thomas – shirtless and sitting on a street curb – “Now you see my fists? They’re getting ready to …. you up.” Thomas replies, “Start punching, dude.”

Rackauckas said the officers was telling Thomas to get ready for “a beating.”

"He's putting the gloves on in his face, snapping them on, it's a strong statement, it's a statement that once the gloves are on … we're ready to go to contact now," Rackauckas said.

A short time later in the video, a group of officers begins to wrestle with Thomas, who is struck repeatedly with a baton and the butt of a stun gun. When they were done, Thomas was comatose, witnesses testified during the trial.

But defense attorneys Barnett and Mark Schwartz said the tape showed that Thomas was uncooperative and belligerent and fought the officers, once trying to wrestle the stun gun from Cicinelli’s hands.

"This case isn't about a bully cop who was trying to just beat down a homeless guy. It's about a police officer who for 10 years protected his community and did everything he could do to keep the community safe," Barnett told jurors.

The defense team also rejected the argument that their clients killed Thomas and called an expert witness who said Thomas had a diseased heart that had been damaged by drug abuse.

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Twitter: @adolfoflores3

adolfo.flores@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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