Two former Fullerton police officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, were found not guilty Monday in the beating death of Kelly Thomas that was captured on film, and charges against a third officer, Joseph Wolfe, will now be dropped as a result. The Thomas case caused outrage after Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man was beaten into unconsciousness by a handful of officers. A few days later, he was removed from life support. After two days of deliberations, 8 women and 5 men brought the state case to a close. The case set off an emotionally charged debate on largely ignored issues, including police officer’s use of force, police training in regards to mentally ill suspects, and relations between the homeless and officers.
The jury sided with the defense who contended that the officers did nothing wrong and that Kelly Thomas was resisting arrest. The defense had also argued at trial that Thomas’ heart was weak from previous years of drug abuse. The jury said that Ramos and Cicinelli acted in line with their training and their professional right to use force when they beat Kelly Thomas, a homeless man diagnosed as a schizophrenic, during a chaotic police altercation in 2011 after they responded to a possible attempted car break in. The verdict seemed to reject the prosecution’s contention that the incident set a precedent that allows police to deal brutally with the mentally ill, a vulnerable population, prone to erratic behavior during an arrest situation.
“This is carte blanche to police officers to do whatever they want,” Ron Thomas, the victim’s father, told CNN.
Ramos was acquitted of 2nd degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Cicinelli was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father a former sheriff’s deputy himself, said at a news conference following the verdict that the verdict is not the last word, “I look at this like a prize fight. It’s not over, we still have several rounds to go.”
Thomas, along with his attorney Garo Mardirossian, said a civil suit the family is planning will expose a civil jury to more testimony than the criminal trial did. The attorney criticized the judge’s decisions in the case saying that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was hamstrung by court rulings limiting the “full case”. They praised the prosecutor saying that he “gave it his best”.
The verdict in the criminal case came after 3 weeks of testimony, 25 witnesses, and a packed public gallery. At the heart of the trial was the 33-minute surveillance video synced with police officers’ audo recordings and dueling medical experts who disagreed on cause of death.
Asked what he would ask jurors given the chance, Thomas said: “I would want to know how they came to the not-guilty verdict. I’m puzzled and I think that’s a fair question.”
Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s L.A. field office, said the agency opened a civil rights investigation into the case in 2011. Now that the state trial has concluded, she said, “investigators will examine the evidence and testimony to determine if further investigation is warranted…”
Mardirossian said that, depending on what federal officials do with the case, the family plans to file its civil case in about six to 12 months. Even so, Ron Thomas said, “it’s all about the criminal case…I will not stop until we get justice for Kelly,” he said.
The verdict comes as shocking to many who followed the case given the circumstances.
That fateful night, caught on camera, Thomas appeared calm when approached by officers. The officers ordered him to sit on a curb, with his hands on his knees, while they rifled through his belongings. Thomas was initially belligerent about that, but did comply. Then, suddenly, the incident turned violent. The defense said Thomas didn’t follow police orders to remain still. The prosecution said that Thomas didn’t understand due to his illness and couldn’t follow them.
What is clear is everything that followed for the next 33 minutes.
Ramos put on latex gloves and then put his fists in Thomas’ face saying, “see these fists?….They’re getting ready to f*** you up.”
For 9 minutes and 40 seconds, 6 officers pummelled Thomas with fists, stun guns, and batons, with Ramos delivering a volley of punches and beating him with his baton while Cicinelli tased him twice in the face among other things. The officers put their knees in his back and applied enough weight to stop his breathing. In a part of the video that particularly incited public ire, Thomas cries out for help and screams, “I’m sorry” repeatedly and even tells the officers, “please, I can’t breathe.” Thomas appeared to fight the officers because of his suffocation, pain, and confusion. The altercation left Thomas unconscious and bloody, he never regained consciousness. He died 5 days later.
The defense never disputed that the officers beat Thomas basically to death, but how those actions were to be interpreted was the heart of the case. To the prosecution and protestors, the video showed officers who were clearly abusing their authority and right to use force against an unarmed man who wasn’t threatening. To the defense, the cops had a right to protect themselves without fear of prosecution.
“They did what they were trained to do,” one of the officers’ attorneys told the Los Angeles Times.
“What this means is that all of us need to be very afraid now,” said father Ron Thomas, the man Kelly Thomas called out for while being beaten, “Police officers everywhere can beat us, kill us, do whatever they want because it was proven here today they can get away with it.”
A statement issued just after the verdict by Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes read: “We respect the jury’s verdict, and appreciate the consideration the jury gave to the evidence. We understand that there may be a wide variety of reactions to the verdict and encourage anybody who wishes to express their feelings to do so respectfully.”
- Visit: The National Alliance to End Homelessness
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- Visit: The National Alliance on Mental Illness