Police officers go on trial for killing Kelly Thomas two years ago

Monday, December 3, 2013

Good evening:

The trial of two City of Fullerton police officers charged with killing Kelly Thomas, 37, more than two years ago finally got underway today with opening statements. Fullerton is located in conservative Orange County, CA, approximately 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and this is the first time in the history of the county that a police officer will stand trial for murder.

Officer Manuel Ramos, 39, is charged with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Officer Jay Cicinelli, 42, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. A third officer, who is also charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force, will be tried after this trial concludes because his case was severed from the other two defendants.

Some of you may remember this case, especially if you live in California, because of substantial and continuing community outrage about Thomas’s death and the failure of the police department and the district attorney’s office to arrest and prosecute any of the police officers involved. Months of protests finally led to the resignation of the police chief and a recall election.

Let’s take a look at this tragic case because there is much we can learn from it.

Kelly Thomas was mentally disabled by schizophrenia, homeless and unemployable. CBS News reported today,

Thomas, who some called “Crazy Kelly,” was known around town for his disheveled red beard and erratic behavior and was already familiar to police. Ramos himself had been called on seven previous occasions to remove him from private property and Thomas had been written up for trespassing, urinating in a fountain and vandalism, among other things.

The altercation that led to his death started in much the same way, with Ramos rolling up to a police call about a man who was trying to open car doors at Fullerton’s busy transit center. This time, however, things escalated – and much of it was captured on the surveillance tape that promises to be the trial’s centerpiece.

The body microphones that the officers attach to their uniforms were also working.

The district attorney has provided a preview of the State’s case.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas hassaid investigators overlaid recordings from the officers’ body microphones with the tape, allowing prosecutors to provide a blow-by-blow narrative of an “impending beating by an angry police officer” and verbatim quotes from the officers and Thomas as the scene unfolded.

Initially, Ramos chides Thomas for his evasive answers: “It seems like every day, we have to talk to you about somethin’ … Do you enjoy it?” Ramos asks Thomas, according to a prosecution transcript.

Within minutes, Ramos grows angry as Thomas refuses to cooperate. He snaps on latex gloves, holds his fists in front of Thomas’ face and says, “Now see my fists? They are getting ready to (expletive) you up.”

Thomas stood up and pulled away, prosecutors said, and Ramos chased him down, tackled him and punched him in the ribs as he pinned him down.

Cicinelli, who arrived moments later, is accused of kneeing Thomas twice in the head and using a Taser on him four times before hitting him in the face with the blunt end of the stun gun eight times. The coroner listed the cause of death as mechanical compression of the thorax, which made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen.

Kelly Thomas called out to his father for help 30 times during the 10-minute beating.

The defense will be asserting the crazy-meth defense, despite an absence of physical resistance to police authority and no meth metabolites, or any other drugs in Kelly’s blood. They will argue that he was not schizophrenic. Instead, they will claim that his psychotic delusions were caused by a long-term addiction to meth. They are going to engage in as much character assassination as the trial court will permit in an effort to portray Kelly Thomas as an unpredictable, dangerous and violent person.

CBS reports,

Defense attorneys, however, portray a very different encounter and are seeking to introduce evidence that Thomas had a history of violence and suffered from psychotic episodes due to prolonged methamphetamine abuse.

The surveillance video doesn’t begin until 25 seconds into the confrontation and doesn’t show, for example, how Thomas reached repeatedly for Cicinelli’s weapon as they struggled, according to defense motions.

In the audio recordings, Cicinelli can be heard telling others that Thomas must be “on something” because it took three officers to get him in handcuffs. Ramos adds that Thomas tried to bite him through his pants.

The judge will allow defense attorneys to tell the jury about Thomas’ prior conviction for assaulting his grandfather with a fireplace poker and about a restraining order that his mother sought against him after he held her by the throat during an argument.

The defense team also plans to present its own expert who will testify that Thomas had an enlarged heart due to chronic methamphetamine abuse, providing an alternate cause of death.

We have discussed schizophrenia and the plight of the mentally ill in this country beginning with Jarrod Loughner and continuing with James Holmes, Aaron Alexis and the woman who was chased and shot to death by police in Washington, D.C. after she collided with a barrier blocking access to a driveway leading to the White House and sped away in the direction of the Capitol ignoring orders to pull over and stop. Little treatment or services are available for the mentally ill in our country. Federal and state governments basically expect them to stay out of sight and fend for themselves. When police encounter them sleeping on park benches or in alleys behind dumpsters or clusters of garbage cans, they roust and order them to move on. If police arrest them for committing crimes, they take them to jail where they will remain until their cases are processed and they finish serving their sentences. The Los Angeles County Jail houses and treats more of the mentally ill than any mental hospital in the nation. Disgraceful is the best word that I can think of to describe how our nation treats the mentally ill.

Not surprisingly, Kelly Thomas had prior contacts with the police.

Finally, the most likely reason that the trial court severed the third defendant from this trial is that the prosecution will be introducing statements by one or both of the two officers that inculpate the third officer. Assuming they decide not to testify, the third defendant would not be able to cross examine them about those statements. That would violate Sixth Amendment right to confront his accusers.

By severing him out of this case and trying him after it’s over, he would be able to call them during the defense case and cross examine them as hostile witnesses, if necessary, since a guilty or not guilty verdict would have ended their legal jeopardy terminating their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

I sincerely hope that this case, together with the others I have mentioned, will focus national attention and discussion about the plight of the mentally ill.

We need to create and fund a comprehensive national mental health treatment plan.

The trial is expected to last six weeks.

This is our 780th post.

38 Responses to Police officers go on trial for killing Kelly Thomas two years ago

  1. You all have thoughtful comments says:

    Dedicated to Kelly J. Thomas


    “DAD! DAD!”, were the last screams ignored by the cops on the beat, an innocent man Kelly Thomas MURDERED *brutally on the street.

    It was needless, senseless, n were not sure why, but those dirty pigs had cold intent on making kelly die.

    Beaten w/flashlights n tased 5 times, if our justice department wasnt crooked theyd have to answer for their crimes.

    “Please, Please God” – he screamed while TORTURED by police abuse, helpless n bloody – ravaged by savages – there is no excuse.

    “Im Sorry” “Im Sorry”, he shouted to no avail, so now the people stand up for Kelly in the hopes that “justice” will prevail.

    FULLERTON P.D. is just a CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE, n Anonymous will make sure they hear the peoples cries.

    You see, this is UNACCEPTABLE an it cannot stand, and i can tell you right now its not just one innocent man – no its hundreds – its thousands, this happens all over the land, its just not publicised – but this was – n now were doing wat we can.

    Our hearts go out to Kelly, Ron, and his family whose going through hell, there must be justice for Kelly, but only time can tell *how long it’ll take for Kelly’s KILLERS to be condemned to a cell.

    This is a call to arms people so stand up n FIGHT, dont take no for an answer – demand justice, even though nothing can make this right. R.I.P. Kelly J. Thomas

  2. bettykath says:

    I just tried to watch the video. Couldn’t handle all of it. Defense attorney says that the problem was that the police weren’t harsh enough!!! My God, if six cops, beating a guy to death isn’t harsh enough, what is???? I’m afraid that if I were there and heard his cries of pain and anguish, I’d have tried to intervene to deescalate the situation. I know…. I’d have been arrested too. And probably beaten, as well. But better that than doing nothing and having nightmares the rest of my life for my lack of action. The picture of his face is beyond words.

    From what I could see, they had no reason to detain him in the first place. Are we required to tell cops our name at their whim?

  3. Boyd says:

    I remember this. I saw the video. Those cops were clearly in the wrong. I recall a Bus Driver waiting at a bus stop recorded some of it and the Bus passengers were calling 911.

    A Strange defense, I can’t see how that defense correlates to a Cop saying “Now see my fists? They are getting ready to (expletive) you up.” and then doing it.

    If the cops win the case, they can kill anyone anytime they want and walk away.

    • a2nite says:

      The police can kill anyone anytime. Its been that way for a long time for black people.

      Welcome to being a POC in America.

    • lurker says:

      I have on occasion seen police officers skillfully de-escalate situations. I cannot say for certain that it is a majority. But, there are specific skills that can be taught and learned. And those who cannot learn and act should be weeded out.

      • Malisha says:

        One way to weed them out is to prosecute them for anything they do that is criminal. PERIOD.

        • bettykath says:

          What a novel idea, Malisha, charge criminal activity as a crime, Especially if perpetrated by authority figures. Unfortunately we have a country that has violated many international laws and many of our own laws and no one has been held accountable. The rot of the head has moved down the chain.

        • Two sides to a story says:

          Amen. There have been far too many criminal acts by police not prosecuted in the USA for decades. It’s high time that police departments stop protecting their criminals and put them where they belong.

  4. aussie says:

    So, let’s say the guy WAS a genuine meth addict. Let’s say he was high at the time. Let’s say he had 15 previous convictions for assault.

    None of that is an excuse for beating him up then sitting on him so he can’t breathe.

    ALL he was doing was NOT ANSWERING QUESTIONS to the cops satisfaction. That is no justification for tasering or beating someone, no matter how dreadful and evil he is or how bad a history he has.

    So that defence is not going to get the cops too far.

    • Boyd says:

      hands out, feet in, feet out, hands in… hands under your feet. feet out, hold still, feet in …. don’t understand, eh? now I get to beat you to death.

    • lurker says:

      Report just came out on the suicide of Ariel Castro and another inmate. Other inmates reported that the guards had taunted Castro by telling him his food was poisoned.

      Now, Castro, and what he did comes close to some of the sickest behavior on earth. But, those of us on the civilized side of the divide have to find ourselves diminished by the behavior of those guards–and our willingness to allow such through poor oversight, etc.

      We will be known by the ways in which we choose to treat the least of us, which includes not only children and those who are weak and/or disabled, but also those who are mentally ill, addicted and criminals.

      • Two sides to a story says:

        Plenty of normal people think, oh well, it’s prison. But no one should be abused in prison. To lose one’s freedom and be locked up is enough punishment.

    • Malisha says:

      Just look at the expression on the girl’s face as she is under arrest! Worth a thousand words and most of them are “WTF?”!

    • bettykath says:

      And here’s another. Would this have happened if race weren’t a factor?


      • Boyd says:

        Don’t shop around there.

      • lurker says:

        Lawrence O’Donnell did a piece on that last night. To make matters worse, they were members of a sports team and their coach showed up, prior to arrest, to vouch for them. And, despite police claims of multiple previous complaints (which shouldn’t matter) of people being scared away from businesses, there was no business located in the immediate area of the bus stop.

      • texad says:

        Is it any wonder that Tina Turner gladly gave up her American citizenship? I can only imagine the indignities she witnessed first hand while touring the South (and the North) with Ike, the band, and the ikettes. [Not to mention the abuse she suffererd from Ike.] Those things stay with you-even if you don’t talk about them. I’m reminded of the poem “White Houses” by Claude McKay written in 1922:
        Your door is shut against my tightened face,
        And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
        But I possess the courage and the grace
        To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
        The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
        A chafing savage, down the decent street;
        And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
        Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
        Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
        Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
        And find in it the superhuman power
        To hold me to the letter of your law!
        Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
        Against the potent poison of your hate.

    • Boyd says:

      They need to sue for damages , for false arrest. My time is valuable.

  5. bettykath says:

    Roselyn Carter has been advocating for better mental care for many years.

  6. bronxlady1 says:

    Disgusting to do this to another human being. But it goes on way too often. I only hope justice is done on behalf of poor Kelly Thomas.

  7. kllypyn says:

    They don’t like cops in prison.I think i’ll just leave it at that.

    • Girlp says:

      If they go to prision kllypyn, we know how court cases can go but this officer was so evil, he wanted a fight so bad that he created a sitution and there was still no reason to even tase him….Kelly Thomas was compliant.

  8. You all have thoughtful comments says:

    I also am appreciative, Professor, that you are shining the light on this case.

    I was horrified and deeply sickened when I first saw these surveillance tapes.

    • You all have thoughtful comments says:

      *****Warning to all…..

      the video of the beating is EXTREMELY graphic and evil. I have never witnessed a human being tortured and tortured and tortured until he died.

  9. Two sides to a story says:

    The beating in the security video above begins at about 15 min – the police BS with him for a long time before they jump him.

    Here’s “The Killing of Kelly Thomas and the Power of the New Media”

    • Boyd says:

      I had not seen that in a long time. The cop wanted to fight. I could tell he was itching for it. The cop knew his name( from all the prior encounters he claimed to have), the cop knew he was mentally ill, the cop knew he would not be able to follow his STUPID COMMANDS.

  10. Two sides to a story says:

    Security video footage of Kelly Thomas beating

    • Girlp says:

      He was complying why do this, why did the officer pick a fight? And it’s clear the officer did picked a fight and the guy still was of no danger to him, Kelly Thomas was frightened.

  11. Two sides to a story says:

    I live near where Kelly was beaten and so glad to see this come to trial. The Fullerton police and other city police in Orange County, CA have a reputation for being overly harsh, to put it mildly. There is plenty of gang crime and other violent crime for these officers to deal with. There are hundreds of thousands of Kellys across America, and though they are sometimes a public nuisance to police, there is absolutely no excuse for what the police did to him. None. They absolutely deserve whatever (hopefully long) sentences they get.

    Thank you so much, Professor, for featuring this case. My oldest child is very much like Kelly and my heart is broken for his family.

    We have to be the voice for those who cannot speak for themselves and we need to work on the issue of mental health care in America. Our system is broken.

    Kelly was fairly passive, screaming for his father during the beating.

  12. crazy1946 says:

    Some times justice is awfully slow!

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