Is Orange County Proud of Not Guilty Verdicts In Kelly Thomas Murder Trial?
Minutes after Jan. 13 verdicts that elated two former Fullerton Police Department cops charged in the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a defeated District Attorney Tony Rackauckas stood in front of a bank of television news cameras and nearly three dozen reporters in hopes of making a graceful exit from a courthouse disaster.
Media pool photo by The Orange County Register Ex-Fullerton cop Manny Ramos hugs defense lawyer after not guilty verdicts
Rackauckas--a conservative, law-and-order Republican--declared that he accepted the jury's relatively swift, eight-hour rejection of his charges against Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, and he floated a sales pitch: He'd succeeded because his goal was for a citizen's panel representing the community to decide if the brutal police killing of the 37-year-old, homeless man in July 2011 had been reasonable.
"The police have to be accountable to the community," said the four-term DA, who insisted he stands by his decision to make history by filing a second-degree murder charge against Ramos, who instigated the fatal encounter with the schizophrenic suspect, as well as lesser charges against Cicinelli, who used the butt of a Taser gun to crush a restrained Thomas' facial bones.
Prior to the Thomas killing, no police officer in Orange County history had been charged with murder for on-duty conduct.
See also: Kelly Thomas Trial: Courthouse Aftermath
When Rackauckas announced charges 845 days before these verdicts, I called it one of his finest moments because--though we have outstanding, decent cops in every department--our county also has a long, disgraceful history of law-enforcement officials covering up sickening cases of police corruption.
Now, from what transpired inside Judge William R. Froeberg's 10th-floor, Santa Ana courtroom, it isn't hyperbole to say OC juries will let thug cops get away with murder--even when such attacks are captured on video-surveillance cameras.
"They got away with murdering my son," a weeping Cathy Thomas told reporters while wiping away tears with a tissue. "It just isn't fair at all."
John Barnett, seasoned attorney for accused dirty cops and Ramos' representative, told the biggest whoppers of the trial, including that prosecutors conspired with four dishonest doctors to frame the defendants and that Thomas posed a violent, lethal threat necessitating responding deadly force by officers. He also claimed the seven-minute police beating did not cause the death that immediately followed it. In his alternative world, the cause of death will be forever an unsolved mystery.
Media pool photo by The Orange County Register Jay Cicinelli
Barnett took the expected victory lap in front of reporters after the verdicts.
"The jury clearly understood the law and the facts," he said after aggressively walking up to the media microphones on the second floor of the courthouse and crowding out Ron Thomas, the distressed father of the victim. "I thought we had very good facts on our side."
Sadly, the truth is that Barnett and co-counsel Michael Schwartz likely could have limited their high-priced utterances to the assertion of a lone fact--their clients had been on-duty cops during the killing--then sat down in silence for the remainder of the trial and reaped the same verdicts.
The defense lawyers know the quickest way to Orange County jurors' hearts is to remind them, as Barnett continuously did, the defendants patrolled the--don't laugh--"mean streets of Fullerton," kept the public safe from hoodlums and didn't deserve to be second-guessed on "split-second decisions" about using deadly force.
To reinforce that strategy during their closing arguments, Barnett and Schwartz growled in theatrical contempt that the DA had the nerve to question cops who, they said, get up every morning, put on a uniform and risk their lives.
There's nothing original about the tactic we can call the Colonel Nathan R. Jessup defense from A Few Good Men: "I have neither the time nor the inclination to defend myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!"
But the DA did rightly question the killing of Thomas because it was (to anyone being honest) savagely unnecessary, and while police officers in California enjoy extraordinary, special rights, they don't yet have codified, blanket immunity.
Rackauckas' error wasn't botching a cross-examination. He didn't forget to call an important, trial-altering witness. Some may say he should have filed only excessive force counts and avoided the more sensational murder charge.
In truth, he mistakenly believed he had a fair chance to convince a jury inside our cop-loving county to hold police accountable.