A California Jury's Baffling Verdict

The video shows two former police officers beating a mentally ill man into a coma. So why were they acquitted?
Cathy Thomas stands with supporters in Santa Ana, California, after a courthouse news conference regarding the trial of the police officers who killed her son. (Alex Gallardo/Reuters)

"Dad, help me."

"God, help me."

"Help me. Help me. Help me."

These were the last words of a mentally ill homeless man named Kelly Thomas, who was beaten into a coma by two Fullerton (California) police officers on the night of July 10, 2011. Thomas died five days later. Yet despite the fact that the beating was recorded on videotape, and the pleas of the beaten man were heard and recorded by audio devices worn by the officers, an Orange County jury Monday night acquitted both men of all of the criminal charges against them.

It was not second-degree murder, the jury concluded after about one full day of deliberations. It was not involuntary manslaughter, they said. It was not even an example of the use of "excessive force" on the part of the two officers, Manual Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, who for reasons still unclear are no longer cops. Moments after the verdicts, the prosecutor in the case announced he would not pursue criminal charges against a third officer on scene that night.

In most instances where the police use deadly force against citizens, judges and jurors and the rest of us are required to sift through one-sided accounts of what happened. Usually we are left to weigh the words of the police against the silence of the dead. But this case was different. We all can review the evidence to judge for ourselves whether this verdict is just or not.

Here is the video of the incident. (Warning: It is graphic.)

And here, from The Los Angeles Times, which has covered this sad story so well through years, is perhaps the best summary of what happened:

Jurors, who are now weighing the fate of former officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, will also have to wrestle with the question of what actually killed the homeless man: the police beating, as prosecutors contend, or, as defense attorneys suggest, a diseased heart damaged by years of drug use.

[District Attorney Tony] Rackauckas said Ramos was a bully who wanted to hurt Thomas, and Cicinelli crossed the line when he used his stun gun to hit the mentally ill homeless man in the face.

Orange County's top prosecutor focused on what he said was a turning point in Thomas' encounter with the police: Ramos slipping on a pair of latex gloves as he tells Thomas, "See these fists?.... They're getting ready to ---- you up."

Rackauckas said Ramos' threatening words and provocative actions turned a routine police encounter into a crime scene. The prosecutor said that once the officer threatened Thomas, the homeless man had a right to defend himself.

In the video, Thomas can be seen standing up and backing away from Ramos. Within seconds, Ramos and another officer begin swinging their batons at him.

Cicinelli can be seen arriving at the scene as the two officers struggled with Thomas on the ground. The video shows Cicinelli using his Taser multiple times to stun Thomas and then finally smacking the homeless man in the face with it.

"I just probably smashed his face to hell," Cicinelli is heard saying after the struggle.

What do you see when you watch the video? I see an obviously ill man whose illness precludes him from having a rational interaction with the police. And I see officers who clearly lose whatever patience they may have had toward this ill man at the outset of the encounter. And when they lose their patience, I see them become unhinged and then unremitting in their use of force, even as Thomas can be heard begging for them to stop, pleading with them that he cannot breathe. It is painful to watch it unfold knowing how it all ends.

To me, this horrible video is the epitome of the use of "excessive force"—at a minimum. So what did those jurors see that I missed in the video? What in turn did I see that they did not? How could it be that not a single member of that jury was willing to stand up for Thomas for even a single night following the lone full day of deliberations? They have not commented publicly since Monday evening but it’s reasonable to assume a few things: 1) They were open to persuasion from defense attorneys offering context about the video, 2) they were willing to give the officers the benefit of the doubt about the reasonable of their fears that Thomas could hurt them, and 3) they accepted the broad swath of California law designed to protect cops from culpability for these sorts of avoidable deaths.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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