[UPDATED with First-Hand Insight From Villagra:] OC District Attorney "Incapable" of Impartial Probe into Kelly Thomas's Police-Beating Death: ACLU

UPDATE, AUG. 5, 4:26 P.M.: Update written by Marisa Gerber.

Hector Villagra is no stranger to Orange County. Before he took on his current role as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, he worked in the ACLU's Orange County office.

It was his first-hand experience with the Orange County district attorney's office, Villagra says, that makes him doubtful that the office can forge an impartial investigation into Kelly Thomas' killing. 

He worked with several cases of police misconduct investigated by the DA's office, but he says it's the outcome of the Julian Alexander case that especially sticks out in his mind.

"We looked at what the DA's office was doing in cases of alleged police misconduct," Villagra says, "and we had seen reports in the OC Weekly that over a 10-year period, the office had only once pursued charges in an officer-involved shooting case."
"We think there's ample reason to be concerned, about whether this DA has the impartiality to conduct an investigation like this." That impartiality is rooted in proximity, Villagra says.

"You have a situation, where a prosecutor, in building a case, relies on working with police officers. And to litigate a case, they rely on police officers, too. They develop relationships over time, that are only to be expected," Villagra says. "We have to ask the question, 'Can they be expected to turn around and then prosecute those officers, when they break the law?'" 

Villagra says he thinks the solution is to add a few degrees of separation. "If it's local police, you could bump it to the state attorney general, who doesn't routinely work with local police officers."
He says he's happy to see the FBI investigating, but now he wants the DA's office completely off the investigation. "Since we see a district attorney's office that routinely clears officers alleged of misconduct, that gives that much more teeth to this concern."  

UPDATE, AUG. 5, 11:26 A.M.: In the statement from Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, on the next page, he mentions a 2004 investigation by LA Weekly into officer-involved shootings justified by the district attorney, followed by a reference to the Huntington Beach cops being cleared in Ashley McDonald's death.

The first sentence may be in reference to a probe of Los Angeles County's DA, although I could not find a link to such a piece in LA Weekly's archives. If both sentences refer to the Orange County DA, I found no such story on LA Weekly's site.

However, I did find in

OC Weekly

's archives "

Shoot First, Ask No Questions Later

," my colleague

Nick Schou

's 2006 investigation into the OCDA's handling of the McDonald case and other officer-involved incidents.

The ACLU has been contacted for clarification.

The Weekly's previous coverage of Kelly Thomas' death:

ORIGINAL POST, AUG. 5, 8:43 A.M.: Executive director Hector Villagra of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California has issued a statement saying the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) is "incapable of impartial investigation" into the police-beating death of Fullerton's Kelly Thomas.

In the full statement that follows, the ACLU leader also says the case "spotlights the complete lack in Orange County of government services for the mentally ill and chronically homeless populations."

ACLU's Villagra: O.C. District Attorney Incapable of Impartial Investigation into Police Beating Death of Homeless Man

(Los Angeles) - In response to the July 5th beating death by Fullerton Police of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia, ACLU of Southern California Executive Director Hector Villagra released the following statement:

"While much of what led to Kelly Thomas' death is still hazy, several things are already crystal clear now.

"We are pleased that the FBI will investigate Thomas' death. Although Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas reportedly has some two dozen investigators working on the case, interviewing up to 100 witnesses, the district attorney has an abysmal track record when it comes to investigating and prosecuting officer-involved deaths.

"In 2004, an investigation by the L.A. Weekly found that of 50 officer-involved shootings in the previous five years, not a single one was pursued for prosecution by the D.A.'s office. In 2007, the D.A. cleared two Huntington Beach officers in the shooting death of Ashley McDonald, who was shot 15 times after brandishing a knife.

"The bottom line is that the district attorney's office is simply not the body to conduct an independent investigation. These are prosecutors accustomed to working with police officers and building their cases with the assistance of police officers. A thorough, impartial inquiry requires investigators who are not in daily contact with police; indeed, whose daily work doesn't require police cooperation.

"We call on Fullerton Police and the district attorney's office to release a full accounting of what took place, including the release of additional videos from the bus depot showing the beating. The district attorney's office has said those videos may present a different picture of the incident; we won't know until they're shared with the public.

"The incident also spotlights the complete lack in Orange County of government services for the mentally ill and chronically homeless populations. Without such services, tragic incidents like this will continue to occur, as police officers, improperly trained in identifying people with mental illness or de-escalating encounters with them, are called upon to respond to homeless individuals with untreated illnesses."


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