When it was his turn yesterday afternoon to begin a closing argument in defense of his client–disgraced, fired Fullerton cop Manuel Ramos, defense lawyer John Barnett asked Orange County Superior Court Judge William R. Froeberg for a brief delay so he could prepare for the monumental act he was about to undertake.
The pause after District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' presentation was understandable given that Barnett, who specializes in shielding accused dirty cops from accountability, needed to muster anger as a way to lure jurors away from the police brutality that ended Kelly Thomas' life in July 2011.
As soon as Froeberg handed Barnett the stage in front of the post-lunch, dazed jury, the Laguna Beach-based lawyer with a national reputation for cleverness pounced in the proverbial effort to transform stinking, rotten lemons into delicious lemonade.
Creating laughably implausible, alternate universes where Earth realities are suspended is, after all, why folks like Barnett get paid exorbitant, hourly legal fees, no?
And Barnett did not disappoint the police union bosses who fund his courtroom theatrics.
Though an unarmed Thomas committed no crime but landed savagely pummeled on an autopsy table at the age of 37 after his nightmarish encounter with six members of the Fullerton Police Department, a red-faced, seething Barnett expertly played the role of outraged advocate for, yes, truth and decency.
He gritted his teeth, stomped across the room, swung a baton, waved his arms, slammed note pages in his presentation script book, snarled repeatedly at Rackauckas and pointed affectionately at his client, who wears a wounded face in front of jurors but laughs and gives high-fives during breaks when the jury has left the room.
Barnett's physical moves coupled with sweet oratory that could have been uttered no more passionately by William Jennings Bryan ridiculing evolution at a monkey trial.
"This case is not about a bully cop," Barnett declared. "He did everything he could to keep the community safe . . . He's just not guilty."
I've stopped counting the times I've witnessed Barnett perform in court but none of them were more electrifying.
In contrast, Rackauckas' earlier, three-hour closing never came close to rocking the jury, but what the DA lacks in speaking skills he made up with logic.
He has on his side an undeniable truth that all of Barnett's hocus pocus can't erase unless jurors are suckers: an unarmed Thomas began the encounter at the Fullerton Transportation Center alive and minutes later was lying in a massive pool of his own blood, unconscious, horrifically damaged and on a fast track to the morgue.
To Rackauckas and the crafters of California law, Ramos had "a duty" to not subject Thomas to unreasonable or excessive force during the detention. That makes common sense. But video and audio footage of the killing shows jelly-belly officer Ramos obnoxiously swinging and poking his baton at the schizophrenic Thomas, antagonizing him, threatening to "fuck" him up with his fists, viciously attacking for more than seven minutes and then callously standing over the near-lifeless body without rendering any lifesaving aid.
For Barnett, who, as a criminal defense lawyer is allowed to fib his rear end off in court, the DA's expectations of Ramos' conduct with Thomas are "nonsense" and "absurd."
Besides, according to him, Ramos showed nothing but sincere, loving compassion for Thomas during several prior years and even on the night of the killing.
"[My client] is not involved at all [in the cause of Thomas' death]," Barnett asserted. "He didn't do any of this killing stuff."
So, according to the defense, why did the group of cops punch, kick, knee, stomp, Taser blast and crush numerous bones in Thomas' face with the butt of a Taser gun?
Ignoring plain evidence that Thomas did not initiate violence during the fatal incident, Barnett insists that Ramos and the other responding officers had no choice but to use deadly force because the unarmed homeless had displayed "spontaneous" acts of aggression against family members in years past.
"Officer Ramos had a right to do exactly what he was doing," said Barnett, who wants jurors to ignore the fact that Thomas' alleged crime–taking a few pieces of discarded mail from a trashcan–wasn't a crime.
Here is where the defense makes its most troubling reach. According to them, cops in California have the right to beat a citizen to death if, like Thomas, they don't state their name and don't fully obey commands to keep their hands on their knees during a detention.
All Thomas had to do to remain alive was to "follow simple, direct orders" from a kind, compassionate, professional cop, Barnett reasoned.
Take a moment to ponder the police state sentiment–disobey a minor cop order and face gory death–that this cop lawyer is asking the jury to sanction.
Closing arguments continue today.