It was purported to be a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Here, we were told, was a clear case of excessive force by police officers, nearly every moment of it of captured on audio and video. A mentally ill homeless man is stopped by the police, who beat him into unconsciousness. Five days later he is dead. Three of the involved officers are charged with killing the man, with one of them facing a second-degree murder charge. So horrific was the crime, so compelling was the evidence, that the county’s district attorney himself led the prosecution team, delivering the opening and closing statements and staking his professional reputation on obtaining a conviction.
And yet, after three weeks of testimony and presentation of evidence, a jury deliberates for just a few hours before handing down not-guilty verdicts on all counts against the first two officers to go to trial. (The third accused officer’s trial was pending, but after the acquittal of the first two, the district attorney elected to drop the charges.)
On the evening of July 5, 2011, police in the Orange County city of Fullerton, Calif., about 25 miles down the I-5 from downtown Los Angeles, responded to a report of someone vandalizing cars near the Fullerton Transportation Center, a commuter bus and train station. The first two officers on the scene questioned Kelly Thomas, who was shirtless and carrying a backpack. The encounter was captured on video by a nearby security camera, and the audio was captured by a digital recorder carried by one of the officers. (Warning: the video contains harsh language and depicts a violent encounter that led to a man’s death.)
The video shows that after a few minutes of conversation, during which Thomas claims not to speak English and is evasive about his identity, the officers tell him to sit down. He complies. When Officer Joe Wolfe searches Thomas’s belongings and finds mail addressed to someone else, the officers suspect Thomas of being a thief. The second officer, Manny Ramos, gives Thomas specific instructions on how he is to sit, i.e., with his legs extended and his hands on his knees. When Thomas fails to follow these instructions as precisely as Ramos would have wished, Ramos puts on latex gloves and moves in close to him. “You see my fists?” Ramos asks.
“Yeah, what about ‘em?” says Thomas.
“They’re about to f*** you up . . .”
“Start punching, dude,” Thomas says.
“If you don’t f***ing start listening.”
And at this point, sadly for all but mostly for Thomas, the incident devolved into one in which two people lost all patience with each other. Ramos slaps Thomas on the shoulder with his hand, once again telling him to put his hands on his knees. Thomas instead stands up, prompting Ramos to draw his baton. Officer Wolfe then approaches, also holding his baton. Ramos tells Thomas to get on the ground, and when he does not, running away instead, both officers begin striking him with their batons.
The action moves out of frame for a moment, but the audio makes clear that Thomas is tackled and struck, and indeed when the camera again focuses on the altercation, Thomas and both officers are on the ground near one of the parked police cars. Soon there are six officers involved in the struggle, with most of them trying just to hold on to one or another of Thomas’s limbs and put handcuffs on him. One officer, later identified as Jay Cicinelli, can be seen striking Thomas in the face. Though it isn’t clear in the video, testimony at trial was that Cicinelli was using a Taser as an impact weapon.
Given what we know to have followed, the video is heart-wrenching to watch. Thomas repeatedly says he is sorry and calls for his father. “Help, me, Dad,” he says over and over, and a bit later moans his last words: “Daddy, Daddy.”
What parent, what human, can watch the video and not be saddened and even sickened?
As indeed I suspect the jurors were. So how is that they were not moved to convict the officers? None of the jurors has spoken publicly about the case so any search for their rationale is purely conjecture. For what it’s worth, here is mine:
The jurors were unwilling to convict for the simple reason that the prosecution failed to meet its burden, which is to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense was able to plant doubts in the jurors’ minds in two key elements. First, they offered evidence that allowed the jurors to question the cause of Thomas’s death, and second, they presented testimony that the officers’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances.