Two former Fullerton police officers were found not guilty on all charges Monday afternoon in the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic man they beat into unconsciousness as he cried out for help on a summer night more than two years ago.
The Orange County jury’s swift verdict came after just two days of deliberations, ending a case that generated national debate about how police deal with the mentally ill and homeless.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas staked his name on the prosecution, arguing the case himself in court. Rackauckas said the trial was fair.
“I would do the same thing again,” he said. “I think it’s a matter that a jury had to see.”
Thomas’ family quietly sobbed as the verdict was read. His mother emerged from the courtroom with red-rimmed eyes. “They murdered my son and they got away with it,” she said.
Video of the clash at a busy bus depot ignited public outrage. But during the trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys offered wholly different interpretations of the video. Rackauckas said the officers beat a helpless man, while the officers’ attorneys said the lawmen were just doing their job.
The jury acquitted Manuel Ramos of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Jay Cicinelli of excessive force and involuntary manslaughter.
As the foreman read the verdict, Cicinelli hugged his attorney, who slammed his hand on the defense table and exulted, “Thank God!”
The case was the first in the county’s history in which an officer faced murder charges for actions taken on duty. But jurors agreed with defense attorneys that the officers were trying to subdue an unruly suspect, not beat him to death.
“They did what they were trained to do,” said John Barnett, Ramos’ attorney.
Jurors were quickly escorted from the courtroom by bailiffs and left the courthouse without commenting on the widely watched case.
Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father and a former deputy himself, said he hoped that the U.S. Justice Department would file federal charges against the officers. The FBI had been investigating and monitoring the case.
“I’ve never seen something so bad happen to a human being, and have it done by on-duty police officers,” Thomas said. “And they can walk away scot-free.”
Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said the agency opened a civil rights investigation into the case in 2011. Now that the state court trial has concluded, she said, “investigators will examine the evidence and testimony to determine if further investigation is warranted at the federal level.”
Veteran attorneys said murder cases against police officers are inherently difficult because the law allows them to use deadly force as part of the job. Prosecutors had to prove the officers had the intent to harm Thomas above and beyond responding to his actions.
“Police officers have the privilege, the right to use force to overcome resistance,” said Ira Salzman, a defense attorney who often represents police officers. “When you have the law allowing use of force, that is a tremendous protection.”
Michael Rains, who represented Bay Area transit officer Johannes Mehserle in his homicide trial for shooting an unarmed man at an Oakland train station, said courts have decided that officers need to be given “a certain amount of deference” for having to make use-of-force decisions in tense, rapidly unfolding situations.
“The courts recognize that on occasion, when officers are trying to do the right thing, there will be death,” said Rains, whose firm was involved in Cicinelli’s defense.
The verdict came after nearly three weeks of testimony from 25 witnesses in a often-packed Santa Ana courtroom. At the heart of the trial was the 33-minute surveillance video, synced with audio from recorders worn by officers. Without it, Rackauckas said he probably would not have filed charges.
He argued it was an obvious depiction of excessive force and told jurors they were watching a homicide.
Defense attorneys countered that the footage depicted a violent and uncooperative Thomas who gave officers the fight of their lives.
The recording begins with Ramos, responding to a report of someone rattling car doors, approaching a disheveled, shirtless Thomas outside a downtown Fullerton bus depot.
Ramos orders Thomas to sit on the curb with his feet out and hands on his knees. A frustrated, and at times sarcastic, Thomas appears to have a difficult time following his commands.
About 15 minutes into the video, Ramos puts on latex gloves and puts his fists in front of Thomas’ face. “Now you see my fists?... They’re getting ready to f— you up.”
“Start punching, dude,” Thomas said.
Moments later, a relatively calm situation quickly escalates. Ramos grabs his arm; Thomas pushes it and starts to move away from Ramos, who takes out his baton. As Thomas is walking away, another officer is seen swinging his baton at the homeless man’s legs.
(That officer, Joe Wolfe, was charged with involuntary manslaughter, but Rackauckas said Monday prosecutors would not pursue that case after Monday’s verdict.)
Soon Thomas is on the ground fighting with six officers.
“I can’t breathe,” Thomas said. “Dad, help me! Dad, help me!”
Cicinelli struck Thomas on the face with his Taser at least twice. Defense attorneys said he did it as a last resort when the device failed to work properly and only after Thomas attempted to take it away from him.
They said the video showed officers who were following their training, not out of control.
Without the video, “we would’ve heard some screaming and crying, but never have seen what happened,” said Michael Schwartz, Cicinelli’s attorney. “Which was a very measured reaction with police officers trying to control a suspect.”
As the verdicts were coming down, Schwartz quietly and repeatedly said “Thank God.” Seconds later, when Cicinelli was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force under the color of authority, he tightly embraced him.
“The video, in my eyes, is what helped the most,” Schwartz said.
Accounts from witnesses and family photos of Thomas’ pummeled face created an immediate public furor at the time of the incident.
People crammed Fullerton meetings to reprimand or shout at city leaders. Eventually, officials’ response to the incident led to the ouster of three City Council members and the retirement of Fullerton’s chief of police.
The coroner who conducted Thomas’ autopsy said he died of brain damage from lack of oxygen caused by chest compressions and injuries he sustained at the hands of police.
But even that finding was highly contested, and the question of what exactly killed Thomas — a weak heart, chest compressions or an intubation tube — took up a large portion of the case.
Defense attorneys attempted to cast doubt as to the cause of death, challenging the testimony of the coroner and presenting evidence and witnesses that offered alternative causes of death.
They brought in Dr. Steven Karch, a forensic pathologist who studies how drugs affect the heart. After viewing slides of Thomas’ heart cells, Karch said his death was caused by an enlarged heart due to previous methamphetamine use.
Barnett, Ramos’ attorney, also pointed to medical records which he said showed that hospital staff had a difficult time inserting a breathing tube into Thomas’ throat. A mistake, he argued, could have killed Thomas.
Prosecutors maintained that it was the pressure from cops piling on Thomas and facial injuries from Cicinelli’s Taser that killed Thomas.
In his closing argument, Rackauckas said Thomas feared for his life and had a right to self-defense after Ramos threatened to punch him.
Furthermore, the D.A. said, Ramos is responsible for what happened to the homeless man because his threat set off the chain reaction that led to his death.
He painted Cicinelli as a cop who “needed to win at all costs” and used excessive force by striking Thomas on the face with his Taser.
Lawyers for Cicinelli and Ramos said prosecuting the two officers forced other cops to unnecessarily watch over their shoulders in fear.
“Not because they fear the criminal, but because they fear the court,” Barnett said. “That fear costs lives.”
At a homeless encampment behind the courthouse, Cindy Vann and James Calhoun spoke of fear as well.
“Just because they wear a uniform and a badge doesn’t give them the right to beat anybody like that,” Vann said.
“It means that they’re gonna run around and do whatever they want,” Calhoun said.
Kelly Thomas’ ashes are kept in a box in his mother’s bedroom. Cathy Thomas said she had planned to scatter them when all of Kelly’s family was together, but she couldn’t do it.
“I just couldn’t get rid of them,” she said. “That’s all I have left of him.”
Times staff writers Victoria Kim and Emily Foxhall contributed to this report.