By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Sometimes, you just have to laugh in disgust at The Orange County Register's coverage of critical issues.
Take, for example, Register front page columnist David Whiting's May 9 story on the newly released, alarming surveillance video of the July 5, 2011, gruesome demise of Kelly Thomas during an encounter with Fullerton police. Whiting, who has reflexively taken the side of the police in all prior columns, begins his latest essay by assuring his readers that he thinks the video "is deeply disturbing." He reports the footage made him "grimace," even conceding that "the video looks and sounds really bad for the officers."
But because Whiting sees himself as the grown-up in media circles, he continues to urge the public to adopt what I'll call the Vulcan approach to the unnecessary killing of Thomas. In other words, dear citizenry, please behave as though you are the character Spock on Star Trek and repress all the emotion—especially if it's anger—that wells up in your soul when you see life savagely taken from an unarmed, homeless, 37-year-old man.
Despite their pleas for caution, Whiting and the Register have found their own anger—and it's not at what was done to Thomas. It's directed at other news organizations, such as "ABC and CBS News," because, according to Whiting, they outrageously labeled the video "Beating death of Kelly Thomas." That innocuous description during broadcasts left him "troubled" because he believes it's not fair to the cops accused of horrific police brutality.
In Whiting's world, we can't know the identity of Thomas' killers for two reasons. First, the coroner didn't tell us. Second, the cops "are presumed innocent until proven guilty." See? Even though we've all seen the video, we have to wait until other people decide for us what to think.
"Perhaps to suggest a more neutral term sounds too genteel in an age of Twitter rants," Whiting opined. "But we only know from the coroner's autopsy what [his emphasis] killed Thomas—not who [his emphasis] or exactly how [his emphasis] he was killed."
The Reg scribe needs to get more experience covering criminal trials. By its very nature, a coroner's report never concludes who [my emphasis] is the killer. The report merely describes the condition of a dead body.
Yes, boys and girls, officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli can't be considered officially guilty until the criminal-justice system slams that label on their foreheads. If you graduated from the fifth grade, you know the civics lesson. Nevertheless, Whiting has now made the point in at least five separate Kelly Thomas columns. According to a Nexis check of his work, he's never issued the same public reminder for non-cop criminal defendants.
Let's further explore the notion of innocent until proven guilty. It doesn't just extend to arrested cops, does it? Thomas had not been proven guilty of any crime—not even jaywalking—when the group of Fullerton cops acted as judge, jury and executioners.
Let's also not lose sight of some ugly key facts. In addition to unnecessarily pulverizing Thomas' face, those cops literally beat the shit out of him. As audio recordings prove, the officers also repeatedly laughed as they stood over their unconscious victim. When the paramedics arrived, the cops demanded that their minor scratches be treated before giving medical assistance to the person with the bloody, crushed, dying body.
Given what I've seen covering Orange County juries for nearly 17 years, I don't know if District Attorney Tony Rackauckas can convert his passion to win justice for Thomas into convictions against Ramos for second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter for Cicinelli. Historically, our neighbors have extended incredibly generous latitude for police officers to do whatever they damn well please, especially if the victim—as in this case—is a member of the county's poor underclass. (If you doubt me, Google my name and "David Alex Park.")
I also have lingering questions about Rackauckas' decision to not charge a few of the other intensely involved officers with at least an excessive-force count. The DA's theory holds Ramos primarily accountable for the killing because of the words he uttered at the outset of the escalating affair. His fists were prepared to "fuck you up," the cocky cop said before the assault.
Cicinelli's actions were much worse than Ramos' words. The one-eyed cop repeatedly slammed the butt of his Taser into an already-subdued Thomas' face. The excuse here is that officers in California can legally use all force necessary to eliminate a physical threat. I've heard of people being physically afraid of a weapon or a fist or a foot, but not a face.
An audio recording of the killing captured Cicinelli uttering these words to his colleagues at the scene: "I, I, I ran out. . . . We ran out of options, so I got the end of my Taser and I probably . . . I just started smashing his face to hell."
Hand me the verdict form.
The admission—likely delivered while Cicinelli forgot police recording devices were active—demonstrates the mindset of these cops. Besides causing serious wounds to Thomas, the face-smashing had another result. It stopped him from continuing to plead for help in hopes that someone civilized might appear on the scene to rescue him.
Except perhaps over at Register headquarters, we all know the answer to this question: At least a half-dozen, fully armed, veteran cops—supposedly with extensive training in de-escalating situations and subduing people—honestly ran out of options with a relatively petite, unarmed, homeless man who didn't initiate the violence?
Let's place a call to the Orange County Sheriff's Regional Training Facility for rookie cops and ask to see the textbook chapter on smashing faces to hell.
That really won't be necessary, will it? Despite Whiting's bootlicking and handwringing and the clever gobbledygook of high-priced defense lawyers, Thomas did not die because he fearfully tried to flee violence-hungry cops. He prematurely died because some immature officers believed they were free to inflict whatever damage they wished on a defenseless human being—and that no one would hold them accountable for being thugs.
This article appeared in print as "Cop Beat: The Orange County Register can't stop defending the Fullerton cops who beat Kelly Thomas to death."