A California Jury's Baffling Verdict

By Andrew Cohen
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.)

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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.

That’s why the defense said, over and over again at trial, that these policemen were, their lawyer said in court, "peace officers ... doing what they were trained to do." And perhaps that is the most frightening component of all of this—one that transforms this local tragedy into a national question. By this verdict jurors told us they believe these officers were merely following their training. So how many police officers in America today are out on patrol and similarly untrained (or emotionally ill-equipped) to handle the mentally ill? How many other police forces have trained their officers to use their weapons in this fashion against homeless people screaming for help? 

Immediately after the verdict, the "dad" whose son cried out for help that night was predictably shaken by the acquittals. "I just don't get it," said Ron Thomas. He doesn't but I do. The law protects the police more than it protects the mentally ill in America. If you need more proof then consider the abuse and neglect the mentally ill endure in the nation's prisons all over the country. So why should we have expected jurors in this case to have honored Thomas' legacy by holding responsible the men who so savagely beat him? We've dehumanized the poor, and the homeless, and the mentally ill, and this is what we get.

You know what else is sad about all this? Knowing, as anyone who follows the prison beat knows, that had Thomas survived the encounter and been arrested and convicted, he likely would have ended up being mistreated and abused in jail or prison on account of his schizophrenia. There are a thousand Kelly Thomases in our nation's prisons today, wallowing in horrific conditions because their jailors treat them and their illnesses with the contempt we saw unleashed against Thomas. It's an ongoing American tragedy.   

I followed this case but never wrote about it because I assumed—wrongly it turns out—that Orange County jurors would convict. But I should have known better. The results of these cases often don't turn upon the strength of the facts or upon the evidence introduced at trial. They often turn instead upon what a group of people, a group of jurors, think is right and wrong. Jurors obviously believe they made the right choice. But because of the existence of that video, and what it shows us with our own eyes, the rest of us are more free than usual to criticize that choice. And I choose to do so. What has happened here— both on that night in July 2011 and again today—is wrong. Painfully, manifestly, cruelly wrong. It is a travesty upon justice.

And if the courts and jurors of California are unwilling to see it that way, I hope the Justice Department now investigates the case as a matter of a potential violation of federal civil rights. Indeed, the FBI already has indicated it is going to take another look at this case. Kelly Thomas, and his dad, deserve at  least that much. If this shameful incident is to have any meaning, if any good is to come out of such a bad thing, the story can't end here like this.

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