Jury selection begins in Kelly Thomas beating death case

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The process for picking a jury begins Monday in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers charged in connection with the beating death of a mentally-ill, homeless man.

Manuel Ramos, 39, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Jay Cicinelli, 41, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force in connection with the July 5, 2011, beating death of Kelly Thomas.  

A violent struggle with police outside the Fullerton Transportation Center left Thomas bloodied and unconscious. He was taken to a hospital, put on life support and died five days later.

Ramos and Cicinelli face a trial on the charges Dec. 2 in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana. 

But first, a jury must be selected. And this case poses challenges for the process.  

"It's not likely that they're going to have a lot of jurors that haven't heard about the case," said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

"It's really important that lawyers on both sides realize that jurors in high profile cases usually have an agenda. Their agenda may be to get on that jury so that they can rule one way or another," she said. " So, it's going to be particularly difficult for the lawyers to sort out what the underlying feelings of these prospective jurors are." 

Levenson said among other questions, defense attorneys will likely ask potential jurors for their opinions on law enforcement, the difficulty of police work and whether they've had interactions with mentally ill people.  

She said the Orange County District Attorney will be probing jurors from another angle. 

"I think the DA [district attorney] is going to have to sort out whether you have jurors who understand that not everybody who is mentally ill is really a danger, that officers, even though they can use force, they have rules as well," Levenson said. "So you have to sort of hear out these jurors to see if they've taken on as a cause that of the victim, Mr. Kelly, or whether this is just something that they're going to come in with, with an open mind."

Levenson said jury selection in a case like this is a multi-step process, including a lengthy juror questionnaire. And she added that it is one of the toughest and most important parts of the trial. 

"If you get the wrong jury, it may not matter what the evidence is that you present," she said.

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