A jury has acquitted former police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli of the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless, schizophrenic man who died after a violent altercation with law enforcement in Fullerton, Calif. in 2011. The Orange County jury delivered its verdicts on Monday.
The widely followed case was a very rare instance of an accusation of murder against a police officer for actions taken while on duty. Outrage following Thomas’s death led to the recall of three members of the City Council and the resignation of the police chief.
Ramos was charged with murder in the second degree, and Cicinelli was charged with excessive use of force under color of authority. Both officers were additionally charged with involuntary manslaughter.
The jury found them not guilty on all charges. A third officer whose case has not yet gone to trial, Joseph Wolfe, was also accused of involuntary manslaughter, but the district attorney said he would drop the case against Wolfe after Monday’s verdicts.
The public anger against the officers, and the district attorney’s decision to charge them, were partly a consequence of surveillance footage that showed the encounter in detail:
The recording begins with Ramos, responding to a report of someone rattling car doors, approaching a disheveled, shirtless Thomas outside a downtown Fullerton bus depot.
Ramos orders Thomas to sit on the curb with his feet out and hands on his knees. A frustrated, and at times sarcastic, Thomas appears to have a difficult time following his commands.
About 15 minutes into the video, Ramos puts on latex gloves and puts his fists in front of Thomas’ face. “Now you see my fists?... They’re getting ready to f— you up.”
“Start punching, dude,” Thomas said.
Moments later, a relatively calm situation quickly escalates. Ramos grabs his arm; Thomas pushes it and starts to move away from Ramos, who takes out his baton. As Thomas is walking away, another officer is seen swinging his baton at the homeless man’s legs. . . .
Soon Thomas is on the ground fighting with six officers.
“I can’t breathe,” Thomas said. “Dad, help me! Dad, help me!”
Cicinelli struck Thomas on the face with his Taser at least twice. Defense attorneys said he did it as a last resort when the device failed to work properly and only after Thomas attempted to take it away from him.
Thomas died in a hospital five days later. After the trial ended Monday, his father told the Associated Press, “Police officers everywhere can beat us, kill us, whatever they want, but it has been proven right here today they’ll get away with it.”
Legal experts interviewed by media organizations noted that the law protects the use of force by police in the line of duty, and that courts and juries often hesitate to question an officer’s decisions during a heated confrontation with a potentially dangerous person.