In a quickly reached verdict, jurors found two former Fullerton police officers accused in the 2011 beating death of a 37-year-old homeless man not guilty on all charges on Monday.
Former Officer Manuel Ramos and ex-Corporal Jay Cicinelli were accused of causing the death of Kelly Thomas in a violent struggle in the Orange County college town, prompting angry protests and closely watched criminal proceedings.
A coroner’s report stated Thomas died of asphyxia due to chest compression and injuries to his head and chest during the struggle on July 5, 2011, at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
“I’m just horrified. They got away with murdering my son,” said Thomas’ mother Cathy Thomas, after the verdict was read. “It’s just not fair. I guess … it’s legal to go out and kill now.”
The prosecution had argued that officers’ beating of Thomas was unwarranted and that Thomas was not a threat to police.
Defense attorneys responded that Thomas struggled back against officers – who called for backup after striking him repeatedly – and that he succumbed to heart problems due in part to drug use.
Opening statements began in the Santa Ana courtroom on Dec. 2, 2013, and the jury was handed the case on Thursday, Jan. 9. No deliberations took place Friday, meaning the jury had not met for a full day before reaching a conclusion.
The verdict was read back just before 4 p.m. Monday, with Cicinelli and Ramos not guilty on all counts. Each man embraced his respective lawyer after learning his fate.
Ramos faced the more serious charge of second-degree murder, along with involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
Ramos could have faced up to 15 years in prison; Cicinelli faced four years.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas made the unusual choice to argue the case himself instead of assigning a deputy prosecutor the task. It was his first jury trial since 1999.
At the center of the trial was a 30-minute black-and-white surveillance video – and audio from officers’ recording devices – that showed a routine patrol stop escalate into a brutally violent confrontation.
An employee of a nearby bar had called police, saying a man was in the parking lot trying to break into cars.
Ramos responded and was the first to make contact with Thomas. His attorney, John Barnett, argued that Ramos had tried to use verbal threats against Thomas to avoid a physical confrontation and had used his police training correctly.
“See my fists? They’re getting ready to [expletive] you up,” Ramos can be heard saying to Thomas in the recording. Ramos made a show of putting on rubber gloves.
Cicinelli arrived when Ramos and another officer were already struggling with Thomas after swinging their batons at him. Cicinelli joined in the fray, pulling out his Taser to stun Thomas, and then bashing him in the face with the butt of the stun gun.
During the fight, Thomas cried out repeatedly for his father, saying he could not breathe.
“Dad, they are killing me,” were among his last words, the recording shows.
The struggle left a pool of blood on the ground after paramedics responded, taking Thomas to a hospital.
After the verdict was read Monday, Thomas’ father, a former sheriff’s deputy, spoke to news media and reacted angrily.
“What was he doing but begging for his life that he deserved to get beat in the face with a deadly weapon?” Ron Thomas said. “They never said, ‘Kelly, have you had enough?’ He would have certainly said ‘yes’ because he was begging for his life.”
Thomas was removed from life support and died five days after the encounter. Seen with a bloodied and battered face in photos from the hospital, Thomas had never regained consciousness.
A chronically homeless man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Thomas was seen regularly in the area where he was beaten. He had had multiple previous encounters with Ramos that were detailed by attorneys.
Defense attorneys had described Thomas’ violent encounters with family members and drug use that began when he was a teenager.
There was no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Thomas’ body at the time of his death, a coroner’s report stated.
A third officer, Joseph Wolfe, was indicted in September 2012 on one count each of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. He faced a separate trial, but Rackauckas said the charges against Wolfe will be dropped in light on Monday’s verdict.
“I have no reason to believe it was not a fair jury and… frankly, it does not make sense to me to continue to pursue the additional officer who’s out there whose conduct was not as reprehensible as Manuel Ramos’ conduct,” Rackauckas said at a news conference following the verdicts..
In a written statement that noted “significant steps” taken in the Fullerton Police Department since Thomas’ death, Chief Dan Hughes said, “We respect the jury’s verdict.”
“We understand that there may be a wide variety of reactions to the verdict and encourage anybody who wishes to express their feelings to do so respectfully,” said Hughes, a veteran of the department who took over leadership in 2013.