John D. Barnett Is the Attorney for the Damned

[Moxley Confidential] The veteran criminal-defense lawyer insists his cop client didn't murder Kelly Thomas

I made sure I correctly heard the claim.

"He was known to carry a hatchet," Barnett repeated.

Ron Thomas, the victim's father, has acknowledged to the Weekly that defense lawyers will try to taint his son, but he's labeled the accusation that Kelly was violent "a lie."

Barnett representing gang-rapist in Haidl affair
OC Weekly archive photo/Ygnacio Nanetti/Orange County Register pool photographer
Barnett representing gang-rapist in Haidl affair


In the aftermath of the Thomas killing, Ramos received death threats and was forced to live in hiding. There were also reports that he was placed on a suicide watch at one point. This is where Barnett returns to his position that members of the media have unfairly inflamed passions against his client.

"Look, this image of my client being violence prone is wrong," he said. "In fact, the truth is just the opposite. This is a guy who had a reputation for not being tough enough."

Barnett also says there is a potent, pro-defense point that's looming.

"We don't know the cause of death," he said.

His point is that if the coroner can't say which blows caused Thomas' death, then how can a jury confidently assign responsibility beyond a reasonable doubt?

I tried to follow up, but he cut me off.

In the Rodney King case, Barnett managed to convert alarming bystander video of the beating into an asset for the cops. In the infamous Haidl gang-rape trials involving the spoiled teenage son of an assistant Orange County sheriff, he attempted but failed to prove that an unconscious 16-year-old girl deviously orchestrated her own rape. Now, in the Thomas killing, there's sensational video of cops beating a man to death. None of us knows if Barnett can turn Exhibit 1 in the prosecution's case into a defense asset, but we know he's going to give it his best shot.

"It's going to be very interesting," he said.

The show begins March 28 at a preliminary hearing, at which Rackauckas will battle the defense to determine if the government's case reaches minimum standards to proceed to trial. Don't paint the often-colorless DA as the underdog, though. Three decades ago, as a hotshot, rising prosecutor, he was good enough to convict an innocent man of murder.

This column appeared in print as "Attorney for the Damned: Veteran criminal-defense lawyer John D. Barnett insists his cop client didn't murder Kelly Thomas."

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