SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — The district attorney who charged two California police officers with the beating death of a mentally ill homeless man said surveillance video of the struggle provided clear evidence of wrongdoing. But in the end, the footage wasn't enough and may have helped defense lawyers win the case, legal experts said.
A jury acquitted the two Fullerton officers of all charges on Monday after a trial in which the 33-minute video was the central piece of evidence. The verdict shocked supporters of the family of Kelly Thomas who were confident of a conviction because the footage shows six officers piling on Thomas, kneeing him and punching him as he cries out for his father and begs for air.
Ron Thomas has said his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia and didn't understand the officers' commands. Juries don't like to convict police officers for actions taken in the line of duty, and the prosecution's decision to charge one of the Fullerton officers with murder set the bar even higher, experts said.
During the trial, defense lawyers used the video to weave a different narrative of events, telling jurors it showed that Thomas didn't follow a lawful order, fled from the officers and struggled violently as they were trying to cuff him.
"If the defense can say, 'Aha, look at this, this is why these officers were able to do this. This is what justified it' then, whether it's true or not, it doesn't matter because the jury wants to fall on the side of the cops," said Geoff Alpert, an expert on police use of deadly force and a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina.
Former officer Manuel Ramos was acquitted on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the case. Former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
The FBI is reviewing the case to see if federal charges are justified now that the state trial is done. The video shows that Cicinelli shocked Thomas with his electric stun gun multiple times and struck him on the head and face with the butt of the gun, shattering bones and causing Thomas' eye to hemorrhage. The officer's attorney, Michael Schwartz, slowed the video down frame-by-frame and told the jury Thomas was trying to grab the stun gun.
"You can look at something like that and conclude that the officers made a serious error in judgment, and still be reluctant to convict them," said Lawrence Rosenthal, a law professor at Chapman University School of Law and a former federal prosecutor. "It's another dramatic reminder of what most people already know: it's very difficult to obtain convictions in these kinds of cases."
On Tuesday, Cicinelli — who, along with Ramos, was fired — told The Orange County Register he will fight to get his job back. None of the jurors have spoken publicly about their decision. The surveillance video began with Ramos stopping Thomas on July 5, 2011, after the officer answered a call about a disheveled man jiggling the handles of car doors in a busy transit center parking lot.
The footage was synced with audio from Ramos' body microphone to give a fuller picture of the incident. Ramos grew frustrated with Thomas, who wouldn't give his name, said he didn't speak English and didn't follow orders to sit with his hands on his knees.
Ramos snapped on plastic gloves, made two fists and then held them in front of Thomas' face as he said, "Now see my fists? They're getting ready to (expletive) you up." But again, the defense turned that detail to its advantage. Attorney John Barnett, who represented Ramos, introduced evidence about at least seven previous encounters between Ramos and Thomas to bolster his argument that Thomas was not a "homeless, harmless, helpless mentally ill guy."
He argued that Thomas had angry outbursts because of a mental instability caused by years of drug abuse. Barnett also called Thomas' mother and maternal grandfather to testify about violent encounters they had had with him. Both wore yellow ribbons in his memory and said they loved him.
Cathy Thomas testified in tears that she had taken out a restraining order against her son after he choked her for several minutes during an argument. Thomas' grandfather told jurors his grandson had attacked him with a fireplace poker, drawing blood. Still the grandfather said he never feared Thomas.
Thomas served nine months in jail for the 1995 assault. More focus by the prosecution on Thomas' mental state might have led the jury to see the case in a different way, said Olu Orange, a political science professor at the University of Southern California who is also a civil rights attorney and a former deputy public defender.
Thomas' mental health "wasn't the centerpiece and it should have been the centerpiece," said Orange, who has closely followed the case. After the verdict, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said he didn't have any regrets about his strategy. "I'd do the same thing again," he told reporters Monday.
Prosecutors intend to drop charges against another officer who was awaiting trial. Three other officers involved in the arrest weren't charged. Ron Thomas has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Fullerton over the conduct of its officers.