Kelly Thomas Trial: People stunned by verdicts (updated)

Kelly Thomas

Ed Joyce/KPCC

Libby Post stands at a makeshift memorial for Kelly Thomas Tuesday morning, Jan. 14, 2014, after acquittal of ex-cops in Kelly Thomas death trial.

Kelly Thomas

Ed Joyce/KPCC

Adele, who chose not to tell KPCC her last name, pauses at a makeshift memorial with her daughters Tuesday morning, Jan. 14, 2014 after acquittal of ex-cops in Kelly Thomas death trial.

Ed Joyce/KPCC

The front page of the Orange County Register Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, following the acquittal of two officers charged in the beating death of homeless man Kelly Thomas.

Ed Joyce/KPCC

A makeshift memorial for Kelly Thomas at the Fullerton Transit Center on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014.


Updated 1:55 p.m.

Some people who live in Fullerton and other Orange County cities continued to express surprise about Monday's acquittal of two officers in the death of Kelly Thomas.

A jury of 8 women and 4 men found ex-Fullerton police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli not guilty on four counts related to the beating of Thomas, a mentally-ill transient. Thomas died five days after a physical altercation on July 5, 2011, with Ramos, Cicinelli, Joe Wolfe and three other Fullerton police officers.

"I thought that these two police officers crossed the line to the extent that they should be prosecuted and convicted, but I never had any illusions about the difficulty in trying the case and convincing a jury," Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told KPCC's AirTalk Tuesday. 

Several people stopped by a makeshift memorial for Thomas Tuesday at the Fullerton Transportation Center. 

James Ramsey, 51, of Anaheim, was on his bike, and paused to look and take photos of the makeshift memorial of candles, balloons and messages. 

"It was appalling, just totally appalling, it's like the cops are getting away with murder," Ramsey said, shaking his head. "It's amazing that in a country like we have that this can go without justice, there's just no justice."

Ramsey said the surveillance video of the incident makes it clear the officers went too far.

"Why can they possibly let those people [Ramos, Cicinelli] get off," Ramsey asked. "If you look at the [video] the man was crying out for help, he [Thomas] wasn't trying to resist, he was just - being murdered, basically." 

Ramsey called it "unbelievable" that jurors could see that video and "let someone off." 

"Those cops weren't trying to stop, they just wanted more and more and they just went too far," he said.

Rackauckas told KPCC, "I don't think there's any way to look at that and say well, this is lawful police conduct. I think they (the jury) had to believe that even with that unlawful conduct that officer Ramos was still within his authority to continue to give orders and make demands on Kelly Thomas."

Libby Post visited the makeshift memorial and said she had been following the case since 2011. 

"My son, was 12 at the time (July 2011) and we lived in Fullerton then and used to see Kelly [Thomas] hanging around here (transit center) and my son was affected by this whole story," said Post, who said she and her son attended Thomas support rallies. 

"It's a real tragedy the way that it's played out up to this point," Post said.
Post, who also spent some time in the courthouse during the trial, said she was surprised at how quickly the jury reached a verdict.

"I don't see how they could not have taken longer considering all the evidence they had to go through," said Post. 

She said the surveillance video of the incident was "heart wrenching" and will "be forever imprinted on my mind."

"You can see from the behavior of Kelly Thomas and the officers that he did not in any way pose a risk to the officers," Rackauckas also noted to AirTalk. 

Post cited comments made Monday by Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas' father, in explaining how she viewed the incident and the not guilty verdict: "I'm just looking truly at what happened here and really liked what Ron said yesterday when he said, 'Kelly was breathing and living and when they were done, he was dead.'" 

Verdicts a 'travesty'

Adele, who declined to provide her last name, called the beating and verdicts "a travesty." She once lived in Fullerton but now lives in La Habra. Adele came to the Fullerton Transportation Center with her two daughters to place a candle at the makeshift memorial. After she lit the candle, Adele and her family paused in front of the candles in what she said was a solemn moment. 

"We were hoping that justice would prevail and it didn't, so we're just just praying for him (Kelly Thomas) and his family, I can't imagine what they've gone through," said Adele.

She said the video evidence was compelling. Adele referred to a portion of the video where Ramos held up his fists to Kelly Thomas and said 'See these fists. They're getting ready to f**k you up."

"I think it's terrible,  I think it's terrible," she said about the beating and jury verdict. "And there's people who will say 'well Adele, you didn't see the whole video.' But I don't think there's any more I need to see. The fact that the officer (Ramos) used the words that he did to a citizen, you know, he's supposed to be a servant to the community. Just the words that he used I thought were inappropriate and unforgivable - and what they (officers) did after that, I don't need to see any more."

Rackauckas and his office haven't yet questioned jurors as to their reasoning for the verdict, but Rackauckas said "somewhere down the road they will look into trying to ferret out those issues a bit better.

"I think that overall, it's a hard matter. You have the basic questions of whether or not these police officers abused their authority and to what extent was Kelly Thomas's behavior something that the jurors would think was inappropriate. The basic questions I think were the telling questions."

--KPCC's Ed Joyce and Larry Mantle

Earlier: 

Dozens of people gathered for a candlelight vigil at the Fullerton Transit Center Monday night after two former police officers were acquitted in the beating death of Kelly Thomas. The Transit Center is where the beating happened in 2011.

Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli each faced involuntary manslaughter charges — Ramos also was looking at a count of second degree murder.

Kelly Thomas's father, Ron Thomas, was set to hold a news conference at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the civil case against Fullerton.

Tweet of vigil

Parents Ron and Cathy Thomas, along with dozens of their supporters, gathered at the spot where Kelly Thomas and the Fullerton police officers had the altercation. A splinter group marched to the Fullerton Police Department.

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A makeshift altar of lit candles was set-up at the transportation center. Ron Thomas is still trying to cope with the verdict, more than two-and-a-half years after his son's death. 

"He was standing there breathing healthy, and when they were through with him, he was dead — beat to a bloody pulp. And they didn't do it? They're not guilty of killing him?" Ron Thomas said.

Ron Thomas told KPCC's "Take Two" Tuesday morning that the verdict made him think of the O.J. Simpson trial.

"I had thought about it even the night before, all night long, about the possibilities of being found not guilty and being found guilty. The different scenarios and what kept popping in my head was Johnnie Cochran and O.J. Simpson celebrating ,and that's exactly what I have seen yesterday with Ramos and Cicinelli with their attorneys, and it was just, it was horrible," Ron Thomas said.

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Deliberations took less than two full days — closer to less than eight hours. They got the case last Thursday afternoon, took Friday off, then deliberated about four hours Monday before reaching a verdict on all four counts against the two ex-police officers.

Former federal prosecutor and Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson had said it would take the jury "at least a couple of days" to get organized and get through the evidence. Their decision came even sooner.

Levenson said that if the jury came back with an immediate verdict, it was not a "great sign" for the prosecution, and it wasn't. But few, including Levenson, anticipated less than a full day of deliberations. 

Kelly Thomas' mother, Cathy Thomas,  openly sobbed in court as the verdicts were read.

"He was so innocent. It just isn't fair at all. They murdered my son, and they get away with it," Cathy Thomas said.

The defendants also reacted emotionally when their verdicts were read.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys used video of officers hitting Kelly Thomas in their cases. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas used it to show the jury that officers overstepped their authority.

Defense attorneys used it to show the jury that their clients, Ramos and Cicinelli, did only what their training dictated in their efforts to control Kelly Thomas, that Thomas did not comply with their orders and that Cicinelli did not strike Thomas numerous times with his taser, as prosecutors claimed, but just twice, as part of the effort to subdue Thomas. The defense argued that Thomas' years of drug use weakened his heart and that weakened heart couldn't handle the struggle with officers.

While the defense painted Kelly Thomas as having a violent nature, Ron Thomas told KPCC, "He had one episode where he was violent with his grandfather, and it was part of a psychotic episode, and weeks after that happened he apologized to his grandfather and his grandfather was fine with it. He acknowledges it sure hurt, but he didn't hold it against him. He knew that was not Kelly because they had a good relationship."

Excessive use of force cases are hard to prosecute. Law enforcement officers are given latitude in dealing with suspects.

Police are allowed to use force in certain conditions and situations. The jury decision was that Ramos and Cicinelli used 'reasonable force' in their altercation with Thomas.

"I think we got a fair trial," said Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. "I don't have any question about that. And we gave them all the evidence, and the law, and they made their decision."

Legal experts have said that juries tend to side with police more often in these cases. Former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson told KPCC a few days ago that police are allowed to escalate force. She also said officers have to make split-second decisions during those moments — and jurors tend to side with police since they're allowed to use force.  

That's what Ramos defense attorney John Barnett told reporters Monday.

"These peace officers were doing their jobs.  They were operating as they were trained and they had no malice in their hearts.  They were not out to get somebody that night," Barnett said. The jury agreed.

One consequence of the not guilty verdicts is the DA says he's going to drop the case against a third former Fullerton police officer. Joe Wolfe was Ramos' partner and was charged much later and separately by Rackauckas.

Rackauckas said after the verdict Monday that since the lead officer in the struggle, Manuel Ramos, was found not guilty of the most serious charges, he didn't think there is a reason now to pursue the case against Wolfe.

The FBI in Los Angeles says it will look at the evidence for possible further investigation. The FBI's L.A. spokeswoman said Monday night that shortly after Kelly Thomas died in 2011, the FBI opened an investigation to see if his civil rights were violated and, now that the state trial has ended, federal investigators will examine the evidence and testimony to decide on further action.

Ron Thomas told KPCC that he's trying to move on.

"It's not easy at all, but I have to," Ron Thomas said. "I'll start working with the FBI and try to get them in that way. There are no guarantees at all and I know that going into it, but it's something else that needs to be done. I need to exhaust all means to at least get some type of justice. Now as far as the civil suit goes, that's something I have to file. You just can't let it a city walk away free. It's not about money. It never has been. But the criminal case is what I have wanted all along."

Ron Thomas said that law enforcement needs to change how it uses force.

"I have been a pain in a lot of people's side, making change and changing policies, and I'll continue doing so. They just cannot beat people. They don't have to be mentally ill. They just can't beat people because they have a badge," Ron Thomas said.

Ron Thomas also shared some of his favorite memories of his son.

"I took him to a Bob Dylan concert years ago and we really had a good time. Ringo Starr walked by us and Danny DeVito," Ron Thomas said. "And we had been out at my boat several times and we went all over the place and did so many things together. He was just a real pleasure to be around most of the time, and I say most of the time because, again, when he wasn't on his meds that was a whole different ball game, and I had to get him back on his meds and level-minded."

This story has been updated.

--KPCC's Ed Joyce

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