Many were stunned Monday by an Orange County jury’s acquittal of two Fullerton police officers of murder and manslaughter charges in the beating death of Kelly Thomas, especially when considering the preponderance of video and audio evidence of the beating.
But to seasoned prosecutors, the verdict was in many respects predictable.
“People tend to jump to the conclusion a case is easy, and these cases are not easy,” said Terry White, who prosecuted the Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King more than 20 years ago. “Jurors are going to give police officers the benefit of the doubt in a criminal case. Not too many jurors want to second-guess an officer on the use of force.”
White should know. He failed to convict the four officers charged in the March 3, 1991, incident despite the now-famous video that clearly showed the officers beating King.
In the Thomas case, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas had even better evidence — both video and audio of the beating at the Fullerton bus depot on July 5, 2011. Included is video and audio of officer Manuel Ramos telling Thomas, a homeless man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, that he was getting ready to “f*** you up.”
Based on this evidence and more, Rackauckas charged Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and charged officer Jay Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
But, some experts say, more important than the evidence itself is where it was presented — in conservative Orange County, where juries want to support police.
Similarly, many said the King case was essentially over when lawyers for the police officers won a change of venue from Los Angeles to Ventura County. Among those defending the officers in the King case was John Barnett, who was Ramos’ lawyer in the Thomas case.
The verdict by jury of eight women and four men after barely a day of deliberations is devastating to the Thomas family.
“I’ve never seen something so bad happen to a human being and have it done by on-duty police officers,” Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, told news reporters. “And they can walk away scot-free.”
Barnett, meanwhile, said the officers were trying to restrain an uncooperative Kelly, not kill him. “They did what they were trained to do,” Barnett told the Los Angeles Times.
It is clear already that the Thomas verdict will not have the same effect on the community at large as the King verdict did on April 29, 1992. By that evening riots had begun in South Los Angeles that would go on for six days and have an impact on race relations in America that continues to this day.
Yet that is not to say the presence of the Thomas case won’t continue to be felt in Orange County and elsewhere.
It ended political careers in Fullerton, changed the leadership of the police department and brought increased attention to severe adult mental illness and homelessness.
And as the in King case, the FBI’s Civil Rights Unit now will conduct its own investigation of what the officers did that night in the Fullerton bus depot parking lot.
To Steve Pitman, a board member of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “the most remarkable thing about the Kelly Thomas case is that we know about it at all.”
In the aftermath of Kelly Thomas’ death, Fullerton Police Chief Michael F. Sellers went on medical leave and then retired after barely three years with the department. His predecessor, Pat McKinley had moved from the Police Department to the Fullerton City Council, but in the fallout from the Thomas case, he and two others council members were recalled from office.
Current Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes, who was promoted to replace Sellers, said in a statement Monday:
Over the course of the past two and a half years the City of Fullerton Police Department has taken significant steps to make it the best department possible. As Fullerton’s new Police Chief, I will make sure those efforts continue so that our police department serves the community with honor, integrity and professionalism.
Police training, increased used of technology to monitor police activity, county mental health programs and public awareness of mental health issues all came under scrutiny after Kelly Thomas’ death.
“We hope that in the wake of this verdict, police departments will move swiftly to ensure that officers are trained in how to responsibly interact with persons suffering from severe mental illness, including the need to de-escalate conflicts and the inappropriateness of Taser use under such circumstances,” declared Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in a statement emailed to reporters.
The ACLU also called for creation of civilian review boards to provide oversight of police departments.
“Civilian review boards can be used to determine whether officers acted or violated department policy, or if stronger guidelines are needed,” Villagra asserted. “Moreover, such boards play an important role in strengthening trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
The Thomas case also demonstrated that police officers, often with little or no training, had become responsible for dealing with mental illness. After Kelly Thomas’ death, Fullerton police officers began receiving training in working with mentally ill adults.
Additionally, Pitman and others said they hope the case will ease the stigma of mental illness that prevents people from seeking treatment or even confiding in family or friends when they feel something is wrong.
Jeffery Hayden, who works on mental health issues in Ventura County, noted that legislation by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Penn.) now pending in Congress would create a national program to deal with mental illness on an outpatient basis.