Police killers go free in Southern California

January 23, 2014

Michael Brown reports from Southern California on the outrageous acquittal of two killer cops--and the bitter response of people demanding justice for police atrocities.

"THEY DID what they were trained to do," said attorney John Barnett, who represented ex-Fullerton, Calif., police officer Manuel Ramos, one of two cops acquitted of all charges in the July 2011 death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless, schizophrenic man whose savage beating by the two officers was caught on videotape.

The 39-year-old Ramos faced not only involuntary manslaughter, but the more severe charge of second-degree murder--the first time ever that an Orange County police officer was charged with murder for an on-duty action. His co-defendant, 41-year-old Jay Cicinelli, also an ex-officer, was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.

After the verdict was announced, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced he would drop the case against a third officer charged with involuntary manslaughter, Joseph Wolfe.

That the three cops were charged at all was due to the outpouring of angry protest, led by a group that called itself "Kelly's Army." In the year that followed, three City Council members suffered a landslide defeat in a recall election because they were viewed as protecting the police, and Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers was forced into retirement.

Kelly Thomas
Kelly Thomas

But on January 13 of this year, the three-week trial of the two cops who murdered Kelly Thomas ended in a not-guilty verdict.

Kelly's family members, local activists and members of the Justice Warriors, a coalition of Southern California families fighting police terrorism--several of whom attended the trial daily in support of Thomas' parents, Ron and Cathy Thomas--were outraged. In a tearful interview after the verdict, Cathy said, "They're free to go while my son is dead...I've lost my faith in the justice system."

The anger was on display at a January 18 rally outside the Fullerton police station. The Los Angeles Times described the scene from the point of view of Thomas' sister:

When Tina Kinser showed up at the Fullerton police station Saturday morning, she had a flashback to the summer of 2011.

Almost everything seemed the same. The demands for justice blaring out of bullhorns. The people holding signs with pictures of her brother's bloodied face. And the way the crowd of protesters swelled so big it spilled onto Commonwealth Avenue. "It looks just like the protest I came to two years ago," said Kinser..."It's the same faces."

But this protest was more painful, she said. This time there wasn't something to channel her hope toward. It had dried up in a Santa Ana courtroom last week...

FOR THOSE who viewed the 30-minute-plus video of Kelly Thomas' beating and who then followed the trial, Cathy Thomas' loss of faith in the justice system is more than warranted. Not only were three killer cops allowed to walk free, but--adding insult to injury--Kelly himself was put on trial instead.

Anyone who watched the video of the assault on Kelly saw six Fullerton police officers involved in a beating that left the victim unconscious and laying in a pool of his own blood. Yet this undeniable document of the attack was spun by defense attorneys into an example of a drug-addicted, violent man who was the aggressor, not the victim.

The defense stopped at nothing to smear Kelly's name during the trial, including calling his mother and grandfather to the stand to recount past instances of violence. Lawyers even cited an incident that occurred when Kelly was 15 years old--he was 37 at the time of his death.

The smear campaign about his drug use continued--despite the fact that a toxicology report showed Kelly didn't have any drugs or alcohol in his system the night he was beaten.

The ploy to criminalize the victim was predictable when you consider the background of the defense team. John Barnett defended LAPD officer Theodore Briseno, a participant in the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Cicinelli's defense was led by the firm that represented Johannes Mehserle, who executed Oscar Grant on a BART station platform in the early hours of January 1, 2009.

Like King and Grant, Kelly Thomas was systematically painted as an antagonist during the trial of the cops--despite the clearly audible cries of "I'm sorry," "Help" and "I can't breathe" heard during the video. The cop-compliant Southern California media didn't challenge this narrative at all--instead, they repeatedly referred to Thomas' beating as a "confrontation."

Most shocking of all, defense attorneys made it a central premise of their case that Kelly didn't die from injuries sustained during the beating by Fullerton police officers, but from an "enlarged heart," the result of years of methamphetamine use. Forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Karch, who testified for the defense said, "He could have died sitting in a closet by himself."

This testimony was contradicted by two pathologists and the surgeon who treated Thomas after he was beaten--all of whom attributed his death to his chest being compressed, which restricted his flow of oxygen.

That fact is obvious to anyone who has watched the video of a homeless man being beaten to death.

Viewers hear, for example, Officer Ramos telling Kelly: "Now you see my fists? They're getting ready to fuck you up," as he snaps on latex gloves.

Shortly afterward, Kelly rose to his feet and backed away after being threatened. Both Ramos and Cicinelli began striking Kelly in the legs with their batons as he tried to backpedal from the blows. Soon after, four more officers joined in the assault. Kelly was punched, kicked, kneed and Tasered as he lay, writhing in pain and repeatedly screaming, among other things, "Dad, help me!"

Kelly suffered broken bones in his face from Cicinelli "smash[ing] his face to hell," to use his own words, when he used his Taser as a handheld weapon.

ONCE THE grainy video went viral and the grotesque image of Kelly's badly beaten face emerged in the media, Fullerton rose up to demand some accountability. Street demonstrations in front of police headquarters in the following days attracted hundreds of people, and City Council meetings featured three-hour-long public comment sections from angry residents.

After three members of the City Council failed to make statements condemning the killer police or holding the police chief responsible, they were recalled. Under mounting pressure, Chief Sellers took a medical leave in August 2011. He never returned to his job, retiring half a year later.

The prosecutor, Tony Rackauckas--whose office had never reviewed a cop-on-civilian shooting it couldn't whitewash--was pressured into filing charges against three officers in an obvious attempt to placate the groundswell of protest that might have turned on him next.

By contrast, though an impromptu protest of about 100 people gathered at "Kelly's corner," near where Kelly was beaten, on the night of the acquittal, the numbers were smaller than the mobilizations in the wake of his murder.

"Kelly's Army" had splintered into several different groups in 2012 for a variety of reasons, and with an ongoing movement failing to take shape, the status quo returned to Fullerton.

For instance, despite some community objections, interim Police Chief Dan Hughes was approved by the City Council to serve in the position permanently. Hughes, a captain at the time of Kelly's beating, had allowed officers on the scene to view the video of their assault before they wrote their initial statements. He later told the Orange County Register that this was a "mistake."

Hughes, with help from the "reformed" City Council, also helped torpedo efforts of the citizen-led Police Oversight Proposal Committee, which wanted to establish a police overview body independent of the city. Last September, the city decided to contract out its "police overview" to a firm based in LA.

Now, with the trial over and the district attorney ruling out further action, Cicinelli has announced that he would like his old job back. He told the Register a day before he was acquitted: "I just have to see where this takes me. It's like starting over...My whole life has been stopped."

But it was Kelly Thomas whose life was stopped--literally. Winning justice for him and other victims of police terror will require a stronger and sustained movement that relies on its power to bring people into the streets.

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