AirTalk for January 14, 2014

DA Tony Rackauckas reacts to not guilty verdict in Kelly Thomas case

Joshua Sudock/Pool Photo

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas delivers his rebuttal closing argument in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers who are facing charges related to the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man, who died after a violent 2011 confrontation with the [then] officers.

Two former Fullerton police officers were found not guilty of beating to death a mentally ill, homeless man, a jury found on Monday in Orange County Superior Court.

The verdicts were read as people on both sides of the courtroom reacted with gasps and sobs. Jurors found Manuel Ramos, 39, and Jay Cicinelli, 41, not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Kelly Thomas, who died unconscious in a hospital five days after he was involved in a violent altercation with officers outside a Fullerton transit station on July 5, 2011.

Jurors also found Ramos not guilty of second-degree murder and acquitted Cicinelli of an additional count of using excessive force. The jury deliberated for eight hours after a lengthy trial.

While excessive-force charges against police rarely result in guilty verdicts, some analysts are dismayed at the short span of jury deliberations. There are also questions about District Attorney Rackaukas' handling of the case and why a more experienced litigator — or one who does not have a close working relationship with police — didn't prosecute the case.

With files from Ed Joyce and the Associated Press.

Interview Highlights:

Do you think you got an especially tough jury or was this by nature a tough case to win?
"I think that we always knew that it would be a tough case. So it was one where there was never any question about that particular aspect of it. But 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."

When the jury came back yesterday did you know at that point that you lost?
"You never know until you get a result, but I did think that it was a little bit early for a conviction."

Would it have been better to assign the strongest Deputy DA to prosecute the case?
"I think it was the right decision that I made. First of all I don't admit that I was unable to handle the case, I think we put the case on pretty well. I had a lot of support and I think overall the evidence that we needed to have come in front of the jury did and I think all of the considerations were properly presented to them and they made their decision. Certainly we have people in the office with a lot of experience and that are very good trial attorneys, so I guess somebody else can second guess that, since it was my decision and it was a hard case and one where we were asking for the jury to convict two officers who were on-duty at the time, that I had to be the one asking for that verdict."

Have you or anyone in your office interviewed jurors to ask about the decision?
"No we haven't done that at this point. Somewhere down the road we'll 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."

Was it a mistake to take the case to a jury?
"First, I certainly don't think that it was a mistake to bring the case. I reviewed the case and it was clear to me that there were violations of law and that these police officers should be held accountable, and that this matter had to be decided by a jury. We did that and it was decided by a jury. Whether or not another jury would do something different, I can't speculate about that. I think that we put our case on, I think we did a good job and the jurors got the facts and the evidence and the law all very clearly and made their decision, so we had our day in court. If I had it to do over again I would not hesitate to do it again." 

Were you able to refute the defense's argument that Thomas had a weakened heart?
"We could and we did. I don't think that the case was determined on the basis of the cause of death. You can watch the video and you can see what the cause of death was, so to say that he had a weakened heart and died too easily, that's just not the case. That violates common sense to begin with, but we also had a very expert and world renowned cardiologist testify that he looked at the heart on a CAT scan and that there was nothing weak about it, I don't think that issue carried the day. I think that the more important aspect of bringing those defense witnesses to testify about Kelly's heart condition was to have the jury consider evidence of his prior use of methamphetamine."

Why didn't the video evidence of the beating convince jurors of your defense argument?
"I think that was the important point, when he put those gloves on and said those things. I think that at that point there was still some back and forth between Officer Ramos and Kelly Thomas, and I can only speculate...I don't think there's any way to look at that and say well, this is lawful police conduct. I think they 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."

How did you attempt to refute the idea that Thomas posed a risk to the officers?
"He never did pose any risk to the officers at the scene and I think that's very clear. 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. They didn't treat him as a risk, Officer Ramos even turned his back on him one time or another, and was very casual about the whole thing. So it was not that Kelly Thomas presented a risk to the officers."

How do you think the jury determined the officers were working within policy?
"I just don't think that the jury was willing to send these two officers to prison for the conduct that resulted in the death of Kelly Thomas. I think we showed them the officer's conduct very clearly, and I think that we showed them the law very clearly, and that they spoke and they weren't convinced and they acquitted the defendants."

Do you think there's a potential federal civil rights case here?
"I would leave that entirely up to them. They are privy to the case in the sense that we've provided them with files originally and we've kept them up on that. Certainly we will continue to cooperate in every way possible. Their considerations are different than ours, in other words they don't have to show murder or involuntary manslaughter, they have a different standard...It's a possibility, they'll have to look at all of the evidence and see what they think."

Will this experience make you reluctant to take on future excessive force cases?
"I look at each case independently and individually, if we see a case that is an excessive force, I will look at the case and if it merits prosecution, we'll prosecute it."

Guests: 

Tony Rackauckas, Orange County District Attorney

Ed Joyce, KPCC Orange County Reporter

Jerod Gunsberg, Criminal Defense Attorney, The Law Offices of Jerod Gunsberg in Beverly Hills


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