Two former California police officers were found not guilty Monday on charges related to the fatal beating of a schizophrenic homeless man in a case that made national headlines and infuriated protesters who accused the police of abusing their authority.
Former Officer Manuel Ramos and former Corporal Jay Cicinelli were charged with beating Kelly Thomas, 37, with a baton and a stun gun on July 5, 2011 in an assault that left the mentally ill man in a coma. Thomas never regained consciousness and died in his hospital bed five days later.
Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges, while Cicinelli was charged with excessive use of force and involuntary manslaughter. It took the jury less than one full day of deliberations to reach the non-guilty verdicts, and both former officers were quickly ushered out of the courtroom when the decisions were announced.
Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father, slammed the verdict and told the Los Angeles Times he had never witnessed such a miscarriage of justice and suggested that federal authorities consider launching their own investigation.
The incident began when a local business owner called the police to report that someone in the parking lot had been attempting to burglarize cars. Ramos was the first officer on the scene and confronted Thomas. His attorney, John Barnett, claimed that Ramos verbally threatened Thomas in an attempt to avoid a physical fight and then, when the time came put his police training to proper use.
Much of the trial focused on audio obtained from the officers’ recording devices and a 33-minute surveillance video that captured the assault in its entirety. Ramos can be heard at one point saying “Now see my fists? They’re getting ready to (expletive) you up.”
Cicinelli was the third officer to respond and approached as Ramos and another officer were swinging their batons at Thomas as they struggled to handcuff him. Cicinelli hit Thomas in the head and face with the butt of his stun gun at least eight times, shattering multiple bones and creating breathing problems that would eventually asphyxiate him.
Thomas can be heard more than once on the tape pleading with the officers and asking for his father.
“Dad, they are killing me,” were some of the final words Thomas ever spoke. The tape, which was shown several times at trial, also includes audio from the officers after the beating and shows them shifting uncomfortably when paramedics fail to revive Thomas.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas made the unlikely decision to try the case himself rather than leave the responsibility to a subordinate. Rackauckas has not tried a case in front of a jury since 1999 and cited Ramos’ past encounters with Thomas as part of his prosecution strategy.
Defense attorneys said Thomas was a violent individual with a history of violence and drug abuse that strained his relationship with family members and ultimately led to his homelessness. They told the jury Thomas endured the beating because he broke the law by fleeing from police when they suspected he was in possession of stolen property.
At one point they called Cathy Thomas to the stand and used her to testify against Kelly, forcing her to describe the time he choked her and left her no choice but to file a restraining order.
Ron Thomas said Kelly was fixture in the area where he was killed and that his son’s schizophrenia prevented him from understanding the officers’ commands. Mr. Thomas was furious when speaking to reporters after the verdict was read, accusing the prosecution of lying “continuously” about Kelly, particularly his drug abuse.
“It’s carte blanche for police officers everywhere to beat us, kill us,” he said, adding that Monday’s verdict is evidence “they’ll get away with it.”
“What was he doing but begging for his life that he deserved to get beat in the face with a deadly weapon?” Thomas went on. “They never said ‘Kelly, have you had enough?’ He would have certainly said yes because he was begging for his life.”
After the verdict prosecutors announced they would not seek charges against Officer Joseph Wolfe, who was also involved in the beating. Online, outraged locals have already vowed to mount a protest in response to the verdict.
The coroner determined Thomas died from brain damage and asphyxiation caused by the beating. Yet defense attorneys argued that years of methamphetamine use contributed to his death.
The case galvanized the public when a gruesome image of Thomas’ face taken from his hospital bed was published in newspapers, online, and passed through social media. The picture depicts a swollen face covered in blood, bruises, and open wounds. Thomas has bandages on his forehead, nose and one in each nostril.
Cathy Thomas sobbed as the verdict was read and was visibly shaken when she met with reporters afterward.
“Just horrified,” she said. “He got away with murdering my son. It’s just not fair. So I guess it’s legal to go out and kill now. He was so innocent. It just isn’t fair at all.”