Tony Rackauckas put reputation on the line in Kelly Thomas case
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas took the boldest move in his long career in 2011 when he stepped up to a podium for a news conference and laid out his case against two Fullerton police officers he accused of killing Kelly Thomas.
“The public has been crying for justice for Kelly,” he said as a television screen next to him flashed the words “TRUTH” and “JUSTICE.”
This week’s swift decision by a jury to acquit the officers of all charges dealt a blow not just to the family and supporters of Thomas but to the 70-year-old, four-term district attorney who put his reputation on the line by personally trying the case.
On Tuesday, Rackauckas defended the prosecution, saying he always knew it would be a hard case, but the facts required that the officers be charged.
“We can’t tolerate that kind of police conduct in our society,” he said. “I never had any illusion about it being an easy case.... We understand that our jurors want to support the police if they can, so it’s clearly going to be an uphill battle.”
Rackauckas won accolades in some quarters for having the courage to bring the charges against the officers in a county that has long had a reputation for being law-enforcement-friendly. Some political leaders continued to defend the district attorney in the wake of the loss.
“Police officers are very sympathetic defendants, and this was a really unique case,” said Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Republican. Rackauckas’ “job is to serve the public. How would we all feel if the D.A. felt the police officers had murdered and abused someone but ... didn’t prosecute because he felt they had a certain appeal to jurors and that it would be a difficult case? That would be a travesty of justice.”
Thomas’ father, Ron, credited Rackauckas for taking on the case, calling it a bold step. But he wondered aloud whether another prosecutor with a more aggressive courtroom demeanor might have been able to secure convictions.
“Tony’s very factual. He takes up a lot of time with his words. I thought he lost the jury several times because of long pauses,” he said. The prosecution, Thomas said, failed to quickly address attempts by defense attorneys to portray his son as a volatile drug user.
“You have to at least counter what the defense is doing.... We didn’t do that. We didn’t bring in the positive,” said Ron Thomas, a former Orange County sheriff’s deputy. “Tony didn’t sell his case.”
Thomas said he hoped federal authorities would bring a civil rights prosecution against the former officers, and he is moving forward with a civil lawsuit against the city of Fullerton.
The July 2011 death of the schizophrenic homeless man ignited public outrage. Rackauckas accused officers of beating an unarmed man and ignoring his pleas for help. Defense attorneys argued that their clients were simply doing their best to restrain someone who refused to obey commands as police investigated a report of someone trying to open car doors in a nearby parking lot.
The jury deliberated for just eight hours before acquitting Manuel Ramos of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Jay Cicinelli of excessive force and involuntary manslaughter.
The verdict shocked some Thomas supporters, who believed a surveillance video that captured the confrontation clearly proved the officers were guilty.
But defense attorneys said that crucial moments in the video helped their clients.
John Barnett, who represented Ramos, said Tuesday that the footage showed Thomas was struggling even after his feet had been hobbled. He said the full audio recording of his client’s confrontation blunted the prosecution’s argument that Ramos had threatened to beat Thomas by telling him, “Now you see my fists?.... They’re getting ready to --- you up.”
Thomas responded by saying, “Start punching, dude.”
“It was very important because it showed Kelly Thomas didn’t take this alleged threat seriously,” Barnett said.
The defense team argued that Thomas’ cries for help toward the end of the footage showed that, contrary to the prosecution’s assertions, he was not having difficulty breathing.
The jury’s view of what happened in those 33 minutes of video may also have been altered by the defense portrait of Thomas as a violent man who years earlier had admitted using methamphetamine.
Thomas’ grandfather told jurors about an incident in 1995 in which Kelly Thomas had hit him over the head with a fireplace poker. Kelly Thomas’ mother reluctantly told the jury that in December 2010, seven months before her son died, he grabbed her by the throat for a couple of minutes. After the incident, she sought a restraining order against her son.
Cicinelli’s attorney, Michael Schwartz, said his client was trying to win his job back. He said he and Cicinelli were relieved by the verdicts but aware that someone lost their life.
“Although my client was not guilty of any crimes, at the center of the case is a tragedy,” Schwartz said.
The verdict is perhaps the most significant in a series of recent setbacks for Rackauckas.
A state appellate court recently struck down sex-offender ordinances that the D.A. aggressively lobbied cities and the county to adopt. In November, a federal appeals court ruled that an injunction sought by Rackauckas’ office against a gang in Orange violated the constitutional rights of dozens of people.
Stephen Stambough, a professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton, said it was unclear how the Kelly Thomas case would affect Rackauckas’ chances of winning a fifth term this year.
The perception of Orange County as a conservative, law-and-order place, Stambough said, endures despite substantial demographic changes in the last few decades that have made the county far more diverse, both ethnically and politically. Residents in the county’s conservative strongholds will probably view the verdict differently than those who live in the county’s lower-income, more ethnically mixed and often more-liberal communities, he said.
“Orange County is not the monolith that people think it still is,” Stambough said.
The key will be how Rackauckas responds to any criticism, Stambough said. “He needs to go out and confidently and strongly make the case — tout his record as a competent D.A.,” he said.
Rackauckas rejected suggestions that another prosecutor should have handled the case, despite the fact that he has not tried a case since 1999.
“I’m not in the courtroom all the time, but please understand I’ve tried quite a number of cases — well over 100 felony cases — and I was a judge for a number of years,” he said. “It’s not like I’m new to a courtroom.
The Republican prosecutor said he would run for reelection and insisted that he decided how to approach the Kelly Thomas case on its merits without considering the political ramifications.
“I understand there could be political fallout,” he said. “I do what I have to do, and I’ll handle the politics as best as I can.”
Times staff writers Anh Do and Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.