Hearing today in Kelly Thomas case: UPDATED BELOW

December 27, 2013

Friday, December 27, 2013

Good morning:

The trial of two former Fullerton police officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, charged with killing Kelly Thomas has been in recess this week. With the exception of a hearing today that will take place outside the presence of the jury, the trial will resume on January 6th with a continuation of the prosecution’s rebuttal case.

Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. Neither defendant testified.

The issue the court will decide at today’s hearing is whether it will permit the prosecution to introduce the personnel records of the two former officers into evidence to rebut the testimony of the use-of-force expert called by the defense. This is a rule 404(a)(1) opening-the-door issue.

Rule 404(a) generally prohibits the prosecution from introducing evidence of a defendant’s character to prove that he had a propensity to commit the crime charged. Rule 404(a)(1) creates an important exception to this general rule by permitting the prosecution to rebut evidence of a relevant character trait offered by the defense. The rationale for this exception is that the defendant opens the door by introducing the evidence thereby permitting the rebuttal.

Rule 404(b), which permits the prosecution to introduce specific acts of misconduct committed by the defendant, does not depend on the defense opening the door. Such evidence may be offered at any time to prove the defendant’s motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident. Of course, such evidence must be probative or relevant to an issue in the case.

The use-of-force expert called by the defense was the officer who trained the two defendants. He testified that, after watching the video, he concluded the two defendants did not use excessive force or violate any departmental rules.

The prosecution claims that the incident reports filed by the two defendants should be admitted to rebut the testimony of the use-of-force expert.

Both officers were permitted to review the video before they wrote their incident reports. This is unusual as I am not aware of any police department that would permit this to be done.

Normally, police reports are inadmissible hearsay unless used to impeach the author of a report by introducing his prior inconsistent statement.

This our 826th post.

UPDATE: The prosecution asked the judge to order the Fullerton Police Department to turn over its internal investigation file regarding the incident with Kelly Thomas. The investigation resulted in a decision to fire defendants Ramos and Cicinelli. The prosecutor wants to review the file because he believes the two were fired for violating department policies. He argued that the defense had opened the door to admitting such evidence when it elicited testimony from the use-of-force expert that he had watched the video and the two former officers had not violated department policies.

The defense called the use-of-force expert. He is a corporal employed by the Fullerton Police Department and he taught the two defendants regarding appropriate use of force.

The judge ordered the department to turn over the file to the prosecutor and scheduled another hearing at the end of next week to consider whether any of the information in the file is admissible. In the meantime the City of Fullerton, which is representing the department, can seek appellate court review of the judge’s decision should it desire to do so.

I believe the judge made the correct ruling pursuant to Rule 404(a)(1) since the contents of the file may contain relevant admissible evidence to rebut the defense expert. By testifying that the two officers did not violate department policies, the defense opened the door for the prosecution to admit evidence that they did violate department policies.

When I was trying cases I exercised considerable caution to avoid opening doors. The last thing I wanted to do was to hurt my client and make a bad situation worse.

Whether the file contains the hammer that the prosecutor is hoping to find remains to be seen. There is no doubt that the department fired the two defendants for cause. Given the disturbing video, I suspect they were fired for violating department policies regarding use of force.

Defense counsel should know the answer. I would certainly question their judgment in eliciting testimony from their expert that the two officers did not violate department policies regarding use of force, if they knew their clients were fired for violating policies regarding use of force.

If that is what happened and the defendants are convicted, I would expect them to argue on appeal that they were denied effective assistance of counsel, a Sixth Amendment violation.

Whether that claim would be successful pursuant to Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), would depend on whether defense counsel’s conduct was so far out of bounds that no reasonably competent criminal defense attorney would have elicited that testimony from the use-of-force expert knowing that his client had been fired for violating department policies, and (2) the misconduct was material such that it undermines confidence in the verdict.

Based on the notion that hindsight is 20-20, the SCOTUS specifically exempted tacticcal decisions by counsel as a legitimate basis for an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim. Assuming defense counsel consciously decided to risk opening the door by eliciting the use-of-force expert’s opinion that the defendant’s did not violate department policies regarding use of force, I doubt that defense counsel’s decision could reasonably be characterized as a tactical decision, if they knew the department fired their clients for violating department policies because they would have violated an ethical rule that prohibits lawyers from misleading the tribunal. Actionable misrepresentations before the tribunal cannot be excused as tactical decisions.

Since I have not watched the trial, it’s not possible for me to determine whether the error was material, assuming for the sake of argument that defense counsel erred and the defendants are convicted.

I have watched the video several times, however, and I think it speaks for itself.

With the exception of the hearing yesterday, which occurred outside the presence of the jury, the judge recessed the trial for two weeks (last week and next week).

The trial is scheduled to resume on Monday, January 6th with the prosecution continuing to present its rebuttal case. Depending on whether the department fired the officers for violating department policies regarding the use of force and whether the judge permits the prosecution to introduce that into evidence, the prosecution might rest its rebuttal case on Monday or Tuesday.

The defense would have a chance for surrebuttal, assuming it has evidence to present that rebuts the evidence presented by the prosecution in its rebuttal case.

Both sides have indicated that they expect to argue the case to the jury during the week of January 6th, so we are getting close to the end of the trial.

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