A jury has found two Fullerton police officers not guilty in the beating death of Kelly Thomas. Thomas, a young homeless man, died five days after being arrested during a violent encounter with the officers that was captured by a surveillance camera.
Former Fullerton officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were acquitted of charges ranging from excessive force to second-degree murder. A third officer, Joseph Wolfe, who had been charged but not yet tried, will have charges against him dismissed, according to the prosecutor’s office. The trial concluded after three weeks of testimony and a day of deliberation.
The video, which can be found online, shows the officer’s interaction with Thomas, who was a diagnosed schizophrenic, escalate from a verbal encounter to a violent takedown assisted by several backup officers. At one point in the video, Officer Ramos can be heard telling Thomas that his fists “are getting ready to [expletive] you up.”
On July 5, 2011, Fullerton police were called to investigate reports of vandalism near an establishment called the Slidebar Kitchen. During the course of the investigation, Officers Ramos and Cicinelli encountered the shirtless Thomas. The officers attempted to search Thomas, and claim that he resisted, although this does not appear to be what the surveillance tape captured.
The officers begin to take down Thomas with physical force, and call for backup. The tape shows the officers striking Thomas with a baton and kicking him after he is forced to the ground, as well as applying a Taser to him several times. Thomas can be heard screaming loudly in pain and apologizing to the officers. At one point during the beating, the disoriented Thomas cries out for his father. Up to six officers were involved in the incident with the unarmed indigent.
Thomas was taken to St. Jude Medical Center in the city of Fullerton, and was eventually transferred to the UC Irvine Medical Center. Thomas was treated for extensive injuries to his neck, head and face. He had facial bones shattered and choked on his own blood. Thomas was removed from life support on July 10, 2011, five days after the beating, and died at that time.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who prosecuted the case himself, used the video as a central piece of the case. Thomas death has led to protests in the streets, and all three officers charged in the case have had their ties with police department severed. The Chief of Police has also stepped down since the incident. The drama has even reached the level of the city council, with conflict erupting at several council meetings, as well as the departure of several council members.
Defense lawyers argued that Thomas was uncooperative and violent, and stated that the video actually showed that the officers used force necessary for the situation. A medical expert called as a defense witness implied that Thomas’ death was the result of heart disease and drug abuse, not the beating he suffered on the video. The coroner has determined that Thomas death was a result of injuries sustained during the struggle.
In the wake of the not guilty verdict, dozens of Thomas supporters gathered near the Fullerton transit depot, not far from the site of the violent incident. Authorities are calling for calm as anger over the verdict gains momentum. Federal authorities are investigating if there are further charges to be brought to bear in the death of Thomas.
By Mark Clarke