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Convicting an officer is a tough challenge, experts say

Murder charges against on-duty police officers — such as the one announced by Orange County prosecutors in the Fullerton beating case — are rarely filed, and successful prosecutions in such cases are almost unheard of in California.

Legal experts said jurors who are naturally sympathetic toward law enforcement are not easily persuaded that an officer has committed the ultimate crime, even after seeing video of the death.

Ira Salzman, who has represented police officers, said defense attorneys in Orange County will have the added benefit of jurors who look favorably toward law enforcement and can make a forceful argument that police had the legal right to use force against a non-complying suspect.

Photos: Kelly Thomas case

Investigators interviewed more than 150 witnesses, analyzed video and reviewed stacks of documents as part of an intensive 11-week investigation leading up to the decision to charge Officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder in the July 10 death of a mentally ill homeless man.

But to obtain a murder conviction, Orange County prosecutors will have to convince jurors that Ramos intended to kill Kelly Thomas or acted with a conscious disregard for life.

Over the last two decades, prosecutors from Los Angeles, Alameda and Riverside counties have tried a handful of similar murder cases with mixed results. Last year, a Los Angeles jury rejected a murder charge against a Bay Area transit officer who shot an unarmed man on a train station platform, but found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Johannes Mehserle testified that the shooting was an accident when he mistakenly drew his pistol instead of a Taser. Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison and served about a year behind bars.

Previous murder cases against police officers have gone nowhere: In 1993, Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, successfully defended LAPD Officer Douglas J. Iversen on a murder charge in the shooting of an unarmed tow truck driver who was driving away from a southwest Los Angeles gas station. Two separate juries deadlocked on the charges before a judge dismissed the case.

Even when prosecutors are able to win a murder conviction, the outcome may not be to their liking:

In 1983, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Armstrong was charged with shooting a pregnant woman and her fetus during an illegal raid. She survived but her fetus did not.

A jury convicted him of second-degree murder, but a judge reduced the conviction, and — despite the fact that Armstrong had disguised his identity as a police officer and set up the confrontation with a false call to police — sentenced him to a year in jail. An appeals court later reinstated the murder verdict, but allowed the one-year sentence to stand.

At other times, however, juries have shown willingness to convict law enforcement officers of manslaughter charges while rejecting murder. Ramos is also charged with involuntary manslaughter, as is Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, who arrived later to help Ramos.

To prove involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors must show that the officers acted with criminal negligence.

In 2003, a Riverside County case dealt with a local district attorney's investigator who was trying to detain a woman whose young children were declared wards of the court. He fired into a truck, killing the driver. A prosecutor argued for murder but got an involuntary manslaughter conviction instead, and the investigator was sentenced to seven years in prison.

In the Fullerton case, "if they get a conviction on a murder charge, that would be extraordinary," said Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor. Jurors and the public tend to give police "the benefit of the doubt, especially where you have a fast-developing scenario," she said.

But Salzman said Ramos' alleged threat against Thomas — "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to f— you up" — could give the defense problems.

Police are allowed to use threats in an effort to gain cooperation from a suspect and avoid using force, but jurors could be offended by the profanity, said Salzman, who regularly represents police officers in court.

The defense will probably have to call on Ramos to testify in order to explain what he was thinking when he made the threat, Salzman said — a risky strategy.

"In most cases you want to avoid calling your client to the stand unless it's absolutely necessary," he said. "There's an old phrase: 'The case was going great until the client testified.'"

In announcing the charges Wednesday, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Ramos "set in motion the events" that led to the death of Thomas, 37. He said Ramos had threatened Thomas, showing "a conscious disregard" for his life. "A reasonable officer would know that acting the way Ramos did would create such a risk," Rackauckas said.

Second-degree murder carries a sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Involuntary manslaughter carries up to four years in prison.

Photos: Kelly Thomas case

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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