Two former Fullerton police officers were found not guilty on all charges Monday afternoon in the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic man they beat into unconsciousness as he cried out for help on a summer night more than two years ago.
The Orange County jury’s swift verdict came after just two days of deliberations, ending a case that generated national debate about how police deal with the mentally ill and homeless.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas staked his name on the prosecution, arguing the case himself in court. Rackauckas said the trial was fair.
“I would do the same thing again,” he said. “I think it’s a matter that a jury had to see.”
Thomas’ family quietly sobbed as the verdict was read. His mother emerged from the courtroom with red-rimmed eyes. “They murdered my son and they got away with it,” she said.
Video of the clash at a busy bus depot ignited public outrage. But during the trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys offered wholly different interpretations of the video. Rackauckas said the officers beat a helpless man, while the officers’ attorneys said the lawmen were just doing their job.
The jury acquitted Manuel Ramos of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Jay Cicinelli of excessive force and involuntary manslaughter.
As the foreman read the verdict, Cicinelli hugged his attorney, who slammed his hand on the defense table and exulted, “Thank God!”
The case was the first in the county’s history in which an officer faced murder charges for actions taken on duty. But jurors agreed with defense attorneys that the officers were trying to subdue an unruly suspect, not beat him to death.
“They did what they were trained to do,” said John Barnett, Ramos’ attorney.
Jurors were quickly escorted from the courtroom by bailiffs and left the courthouse without commenting on the widely watched case.
Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father and a former deputy himself, said he hoped that the U.S. Justice Department would file federal charges against the officers. The FBI had been investigating and monitoring the case.
“I’ve never seen something so bad happen to a human being, and have it done by on-duty police officers,” Thomas said. “And they can walk away scot-free.”
Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, said the agency opened a civil rights investigation into the case in 2011. Now that the state court trial has concluded, she said, “investigators will examine the evidence and testimony to determine if further investigation is warranted at the federal level.”
Veteran attorneys said murder cases against police officers are inherently difficult because the law allows them to use deadly force as part of the job. Prosecutors had to prove the officers had the intent to harm Thomas above and beyond responding to his actions.
“Police officers have the privilege, the right to use force to overcome resistance,” said Ira Salzman, a defense attorney who often represents police officers. “When you have the law allowing use of force, that is a tremendous protection.”
Michael Rains, who represented Bay Area transit officer Johannes Mehserle in his homicide trial for shooting an unarmed man at an Oakland train station, said courts have decided that officers need to be given “a certain amount of deference” for having to make use-of-force decisions in tense, rapidly unfolding situations.
“The courts recognize that on occasion, when officers are trying to do the right thing, there will be death,” said Rains, whose firm was involved in Cicinelli’s defense.
The verdict came after nearly three weeks of testimony from 25 witnesses in a often-packed Santa Ana courtroom. At the heart of the trial was the 33-minute surveillance video, synced with audio from recorders worn by officers. Without it, Rackauckas said he probably would not have filed charges.
He argued it was an obvious depiction of excessive force and told jurors they were watching a homicide.