Four years after Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by Fullerton police, his father remains optimistic federal civil rights prosecutors will hold officers criminally accountable.
“I’m absolutely hopeful” a federal civil rights case will be filed, said Ron Thomas in an interview this week.
However, federal civil rights law experts say the odds are against it.
“It’s a hard thing to prove,” said Robert Driscoll, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department and currently a lawyer with the Washington, D.C. firm McGlinchey Stafford.
“I think if they could do something, they will,” he added. “A beating case where it’s on tape, they may be able to cobble something” to successfully prosecute.
On July 5, 2011 a group of six Fullerton officers took part in the beating of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally ill transient, at the downtown Fullerton bus station parking lot. He died five days later, never regaining consciousness.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas leveled charges against three of the officers. Manual Ramos was charged with murder and manslaughter and Jay Cicinelli with manslaughter. But in January 2014, an Orange County jury acquitted both Ramos and Cicinelli of all charges. Charges against a third officer were dropped after the acquittals.
That left a federal civil rights violation case as the sole remaining potential criminal action against the police.
In spite of frequent announcements that federal civil rights investigations will be conducted following police shootings or other actions involving private individuals nationwide, convictions in such cases are unusual.
Opening a federal civil rights investigation when law enforcement causes the death of an individual is standard procedure, happening nationwide after virtually every such case, said Driscoll.
Sometimes officers are found to have violated their department procedures or policies, as in cases where there was a “bad arrest” or a “bad shoot” and the officers are fired from the department.
But such cases rarely result in federal charges “because the standards are so high for a criminal civil rights violation,” Driscoll said.
To convict law enforcement officers of violating the civil rights of an individual, Driscoll said prosecutors must prove intent: the officers intended to violate the civil rights of the individual who was harmed.
The Kelly Thomas beating, including audio, was caught on tape and one of the officers, Ramos, is heard warning Thomas he was getting ready to “f*** you up.”
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, which has jurisdiction in Orange County, said in an email the federal civil rights investigation is “still under review. That’s about all I can say at this point.”
Ron Thomas’ optimism remains in spite of “what I’ve already experienced out of the so-called ‘justice system’ with the (district attorney’s) criminal case.”
But public expectations generally might be too high, Driscoll said, because most people don’t understand how hard it is to convict a law enforcement officer of violating an individual’s civil rights.
“The reality is that every police involved citizen death creates an FBI file … and it is reviewed by the Civil Rights Division,” said Driscoll.
Successful civil rights violation cases are like the 2001 series of indictments of Miami police officers in which 13 current and former policemen were accused of shooting unarmed people and then conspiring to plant guns at the crime scenes to justify the shootings, according to the Los Angeles Times.
This year, former Des Moines, Iowa police officer, Colin J. Boone, was convicted and sentenced to five years and one month in federal prison for using unreasonable force in a 2013 arrest in which other officers already had a suspect in custody and on the ground when Boone arrived on the scene.
“Boone ran up to the group and kicked Hill in the face, knocking out two of Hill’s teeth and breaking his nose,” according to a U.S. Justice Dept. news release. “Other officers reported Boone’s conduct to supervisors after learning that Boone had submitted a written report in which he failed to account truthfully for his actions.”
Ramos and Cicinelli lost their Fullerton police department jobs but Cicinelli has appealed and is seeking reinstatement.
So far, his appeals to Police Chief Dan Hughes and City Manager Joe Felz have been rejected. His case currently is in arbitration. If that fails, he can ask the city council to reinstate him and if they say “no,” he can sue in state court.
Ron Thomas has a civil law suit pending against the officers and the city.
And, while he said he retains his determination to win “justice” for Kelly Thomas, he’s concerned federal officials will keep delaying any civil rights case, “hoping it will all go away.”
You can contact Tracy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.