At 11:04 a.m. today, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas entered a heavily guarded press conference, walked to the podium and, in front of 13 television news cameras and dozens of reporters, made history.
Rackauckas announced felony charges against Fullerton police officers Manuel Anthony Ramos and Jay Patrick Cicinelli, whom he says are responsible for the savage, July 5 beating death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless, schizophrenic man.
I'm not being dramatic in saying OC's criminal-justice system will never be the same. This is a county where cops, even profoundly warped ones, historically have been given carte blanche. Nobody can remember a single cop ever being charged with unnecessarily killing anyone here in modern times.
So it wasn't surprising that prior to today's press conference, not one reporter who routinely covers Rackauckas predicted he'd file charges tougher than assault under color of authority. But the DA stunned everyone. I know firsthand that more than a few of his bitter critics are flabbergasted.
In the aftermath of Rackauckas' exhaustive probe of the killing, Ramos, who has 10 years of experience, faces second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges. Cicinelli, a 12-year veteran, faces involuntary manslaughter and excessive force charges. If convicted, these cops could land in a California prison for 15 years to life and up to four years, respectively.
Rackauckas' announcement drew loud cheers outside the building from protesters who are determined to not allow Thomas' death to disappear from public discussion.
The DA is a conservative, pro-law enforcement Republican who likes the notion of the government collecting every citizen's DNA, whether or not they're guilty of a crime. He also has a checkered past when it comes to holding dirty cops accountable. Though ex-sheriff Mike Carona is sitting in a federal prison cell at this moment, it's not because of this DA.
Yet, Rackauckas' finest moment occurred today, his 4,644th day in office.
Six or seven years ago, I described Rackauckas' personality as "swinging wildly between wooden and stiff." He's not known for his public-speaking skills. Indeed, I've repeatedly seen him stumble on easy questions from journalists probing his more controversial decisions.
At today's press conference, the DA seemed to finally fit the job, both in terms of decision-making and style. He didn't stutter. He didn't pause for an inordinate amount of time to think up dubious answers. He didn't run from hard questions. He didn't use cheap props. He was clearly comfortable and in command. There's no doubt he believes the severity of the charges are justified.
"In Orange County, we generally trust our law enforcement and with good reason," he declared. "[But] all people in this great country of ours have a constitutional right to be free from the imposition of unlawful and excessive force under the color of law."
Rackauckas outlined how evidence at a future trial will show that Ramos and Cicinelli used their batons, fists, knees and Tasers to inflict fatal wounds to Thomas, especially his face.
(The gruesome image of the post-beating Thomas is now an international symbol of police brutality.)
"This conduct . . . is unacceptable," the DA said. "It falls short of the professional, reasonable police conduct our community has every right to expect."
Rackauckas even espoused a notion that must have made police-union bosses here cringe: "Citizens have a right to self-defense--even against the police--if [the cops] are not using reasonable force in the performance of a lawful duty."
Of course, the DA can't grant anyone new rights. But his firmly uttering a long-established legal point is meaningful. It's an unmistakeable warning shot to cops who think their badges give them the right to be immature thugs.
Rackauckas' finest moment may not have been perfect, though.
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Cops shouldn't be able to get away with brutality, and they also shouldn't be allowed to alter reality in hopes of hiding from the public the crimes of their colleagues. It's not officially clear if any of the other four Fullerton police officers involved in the incident lied in their reports. If they did, they should be prosecuted for that offense. When asked to address this issue today, the DA declined.
If you're a big cop-lover, don't fret too much for Ramos. He has hired legendary lawyer John Barnett, who specializes in defending accused dirty cops. Barnett is a master of deflating for jurors the importance of prosecution video evidence like the kind in this case. He's already telling reporters that video doesn't tell the whole story.
However, the show is Rackauckas'. He could have easily concocted some lame excuse to let the officers avoid all accountability, but he didn't. The press conference move shocked journalists and even more cops who've grown accustom to pathetic oversight. Meanwhile, dozens of DA's staffers who attended their boss's presentation couldn't help but look proud.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly