By City News Service
Two former Fullerton police officers were acquitted Monday of all charges stemming from the death of transient Kelly Thomas, who died five days after his 2011 arrest at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
Gasps could be heard inside the Santa Ana courtroom as the verdicts were read, clearing 39-year-old former Officer Manuel Ramos -- who had been charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter -- and ex-Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
Cicinelli, 41, hugged his attorney after the verdicts were read. Ramos could be seen with his face in his hands.
Cicinelli's attorney, Michael Schwartz, pounded his fist on the attorneys' table when the verdict was announced. His "ecstatic" client thanked him as they hugged, the defense attorney said.
"He said, 'Thank you,' and that was enough," Schwartz told City News Service. "We thank the jury for doing their job and intellectually analyzing the evidence and the law. We thank God for what we think is a just verdict."
Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, told reporters he was "very pleased" with the verdicts.
"We expected the jury would do their duty and they did their duty," Barnett said, adding the officers did "what they were trained to do" and "had no malice in their hearts."
Thomas' parents, however, reacted angrily and tearfully to the verdicts.
"They got away with murdering my son," Cathy Thomas said.
"He was so innocent," she said of her son. "This isn't fair at all. They murdered my son and they get away with it."
Former Fullerton Officer Joe Wolfe, who was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force, was scheduled to be tried separately, but Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said he would dismiss the charges in light of the verdicts.
"It doesn't make any sense at this point to go forward with it," Rackauckas said. "I think the people had their day in court."
Rackauckas said Wolfe's role in the beating was "not as reprehensible."
Wolfe's attorney, Vicki Podberesky, said her client was relieved by Rackauckas' statements.
"There's been a lot of texting back and forth with exclamation points and a lot of relief," Podberesky told City News Service.
"Give the comments by Mr. Rackauckas and the verdict we're hopeful the District Attorney's Office will not move forward with the case. And he's thrilled for his fellow officers."
Thomas' father, Ron, said he wanted Rackauckas to pursue the case against Wolfe.
"Wolfe is a bad character and I want him," Thomas said. "I want him in prison."
Ron Thomas also said he hoped federal prosecutors would step in with a civil rights case against the officers. Rackauckas said he has not discussed the case with federal authorities. Ron Thomas also has a civil suit pending against the city of Fullerton.
Regarding a federal investigation of the incident, the FBI released the following statement:
"In 2011, the FBI opened an investigation to determine if Mr. Thomas' civil rights were violated during the altercation with Fullerton police officers. With the conclusion of the state court trial, investigators will examine the evidence and testimony to determine if further investigation is warranted at the federal level."
Fullerton Police Department Chief Dan Hughes called for calm in light of the verdicts.
"We respect the jury's verdict, and appreciate the consideration the jury gave to the evidence," Hughes said. "We understand that there may be a wide variety of reactions to the verdict and encourage anybody who wishes to express their feelings to do so respectfully.
"Over the course of the past two and a half years the city of Fullerton Police Department has taken significant steps to make it the best department possible. As Fullerton's new police chief, I will make sure those efforts continue so that our police department serves the community with honor, integrity and professionalism."
The charges stemmed from the 37-year-old Thomas' July 5, 2011, arrest following reports of someone breaking into cars at the bus depot. The arrest, which ultimately involved six officers, was captured on video and audio tape, which were the centerpieces of Rackauckas' case.
Thomas, who wound up bruised, bloodied and hospitalized, never regained consciousness and was taken off life support five days later.
Defense attorneys contended during the trial that Thomas' death was the result of an enlarged heart caused by years of drug abuse.
Rackauckas, handling the case himself, urged jurors to use common sense, saying the officers went beyond police protocol during the arrest.
Jurors deliberated for about eight hours over the course of two days before announcing early this afternoon they had reached a verdict.
"Where do we really find justice any more in our justice system?" Ron Thomas said.
He accused defense attorneys of lying throughout the trial about his son's drug use. He also said the verdict will send a message to police officers that they have the right to beat suspects.
"It has been proven right here today that they will get away with it," he said. "They will get away with it."
Rackauckas argued that Thomas was legally exercising his right to defend himself after Ramos put on a pair of latex gloves and told Thomas, "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to (expletive) you up." The district attorney argued that the threat set the deadly struggle in motion, and Ramos and Cicinelli did nothing to stop it.
Rackauckas also said Cicinelli repeatedly bashed Thomas in the face with a stun gun during the struggle, despite claims by Schwartz that his client only made "two quick jabs" to Thomas.
"And what does Cicinelli say ... in his own words," Rackauckas said, referring to the defendant's comment after the beating, "I got the end of my Taser and I probably, just probably smashed his face to hell."
Cicinelli was also recorded on digital audio recorders saying, "I (expletive) beat him probably 20 times in the face with this Taser," Rackauckas said.
In Cicinelli's report after the deadly struggle, he said he struck Thomas in the head twice with his knee, and "applied multiple strikes to the face and left side of his head while holding my Taser" because he thought Thomas was trying to reach for his weapon.
Barnett insisted that his client did not unlawfully escalate the confrontation with Thomas, noting that the two men had an earlier confrontation involving a threat with a police baton that did not turn violent.
Thomas had been homeless for years and racked up a record for mostly minor, nonviolent crimes -- 92 encounters with police and 27 arrests since 1990 -- though he did plead guilty in 1995 to assault with a deadly weapon for hitting his grandfather with a fireplace poker.
A major issue in the trial was the cause of death.
One defense witness testified that Thomas could have died at any time due to his weakened heart. Defense attorneys argued that there may have been a problem putting a breathing tube into Thomas at an area hospital.
Medical experts for the prosecution, however, testified that Thomas' breathing was inhibited during the struggle and that bleeding from a broken nose also blocked his airways, leading to brain death.