Opening statements begin Monday in the jury trial of two former Fullerton police officers accused in the beating death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas, a case that holds ironic similarities to the trial 21 years ago of Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King.
Despite a two-decade separation, prosecutors and defense attorneys are confronted with some of the same challenges, particularly a powerful video that seemingly gives strong support to the case against the officers.
And as in the Rodney King case, the officers accused of fatally beating 37-year-old Kelly Thomas will also face a jury in a conservative county where community attitudes usually support the police.
The Thomas Case
On July 5, 2011, Kelly Thomas was stopped by two officers in the parking lot of the Fullerton bus station after an employee at a nearby bar called police to complain Thomas was testing the handles on parked cars.
Police later cleared Thomas of any wrongdoing. But the 33-minute video released by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office captures the verbal encounter between Thomas and officer Manuel Ramos that led to the beating, which ultimately involved Ramos and five other officers.
Rackauckas charged Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, the first time in Orange County history that a police officer in uniform has been charged with murder while on duty. Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.
A third officer, Joseph Wolfe, faces involuntary manslaughter charges and will be tried separately.
According to the prosecution interpretation of the video, Ramos taunted, frightened and confused the mentally ill man into attempting to run away, thus precipitating the beating that resulted in Thomas falling into a coma and dying five days later.
But Ramos’ Orange County-based lawyer, John Barnett, who also defended one of the officers charged in the King beating, contends Thomas had a history of violence and his own actions forced the police to act.
Similarities and Differences
The Rodney King case began in the early morning of March 3, 1991, when he was stopped for drunken driving. Amateur photographer George Holliday captured video of him being beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers. That video was repeatedly broadcast on television and became a watershed event in the history of race relations in the United States.
Terry White, the former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who was the lead prosecutor in the 1992 trial of the officers, said excessive use of force cases against police officers are the “hardest” for prosecutors.
“Did that force go so far as to now brand them (the accused officers) a criminal?” That’s the key question, he said, speaking in general terms about such cases.
The other important tie to the Rodney King trial is Barnett’s presence. He represented LAPD officer Theodore J. Briseno in the King case.
Barnett also has experience with a third high-profile case in which police were accused, but not convicted, of illegal use of force. And in that case a video was also the key piece of evidence.
He was the attorney for Inglewood police officer Jeremy Morse who was tried twice by former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley on a charge of assaulting a teenager during an arrest. The video of the arrest was broadcast nationwide, but Cooley dropped the case against Morse in 2004 after the juries in both trials were unable to agree on a verdict.
The King and Thomas cases also feature underlying social issues. In the Rodney King beating, racism was the volatile background theme that led to six days of Los Angeles riots and 53 deaths when the jury in largely conservative Ventura County’s Simi Valley acquitted the four officers.
Community attitudes toward the homeless and mentally ill, while far less explosive, are fundamental issues in the background of Rackauckas’ case against the 39-year-old Ramos and the 41-year-old Cicinelli.
Another key element in the Thomas case, which did not exist in the Rodney King era, is social media. Kelly Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, as well as Cicinelli’s mother and stepfather, use email to communicate their views of the evidence and other issues to reporters. The trial also has a strong following on Twitter.
But most important is the jury. An eight-woman, four-man jury has been selected for the case against the Fullerton officers, which is expected to last into January.
It is generally agreed that the success of Barnett and the other defense lawyers in winning a change of venue proved crucial in the April 29, 1992, acquittal.
“It [Ventura] was a very conservative county, pro law enforcement,” recalled White. “Jurors in a criminal context sometimes are reluctant to second-guess a decision an officer makes on the spur of the moment.”
“You really have to have a strong case,” he said, speaking in general about excessive force cases. “Otherwise, jurors will give the officers the benefit of the doubt.”
Barnett agreed with the comparison of Ventura County and Orange County juries.
“I think the Orange County jurors generally have a good relationship with the police,” he said. “They respect the police.”