Minutes after Jan. 13 verdicts that elated two former Fullerton Police Department cops charged in the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a defeated District Attorney Tony Rackauckas stood in front of a bank of television news cameras and nearly three dozen reporters in hopes of making a graceful exit from a courthouse disaster.
Rackauckas–a conservative, law-and-order Republican–declared that he accepted the jury's relatively swift, eight-hour rejection of his charges against Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, and he floated a sales pitch: He'd succeeded because his goal was for a citizen's panel representing the community to decide if the brutal police killing of the 37-year-old, homeless man in July 2011 had been reasonable.
"The police have to be accountable to the community," said the four-term DA, who insisted he stands by his decision to make history by filing a second-degree murder charge against Ramos, who instigated the fatal encounter with the schizophrenic suspect, as well as lesser charges against Cicinelli, who used the butt of a Taser gun to crush a restrained Thomas' facial bones.
Prior to the Thomas killing, no police officer in Orange County history had been charged with murder for on-duty conduct.
See also: Kelly Thomas Trial: Courthouse Aftermath
When Rackauckas announced charges 845 days before these verdicts, I called it one of his finest moments because–though we have outstanding, decent cops in every department–our county also has a long, disgraceful history of law-enforcement officials covering up sickening cases of police corruption.
Now, from what transpired inside Judge William R. Froeberg's 10th-floor, Santa Ana courtroom, it isn't hyperbole to say OC juries will let thug cops get away with murder–even when such attacks are captured on video-surveillance cameras.
"They got away with murdering my son," a weeping Cathy Thomas told reporters while wiping away tears with a tissue. "It just isn't fair at all."
John Barnett, seasoned attorney for accused dirty cops and Ramos' representative, told the biggest whoppers of the trial, including that prosecutors conspired with four dishonest doctors to frame the defendants and that Thomas posed a violent, lethal threat necessitating responding deadly force by officers. He also claimed the seven-minute police beating did not cause the death that immediately followed it. In his alternative world, the cause of death will be forever an unsolved mystery.
Barnett took the expected victory lap in front of reporters after the verdicts.
"The jury clearly understood the law and the facts," he said after aggressively walking up to the media microphones on the second floor of the courthouse and crowding out Ron Thomas, the distressed father of the victim. "I thought we had very good facts on our side."
Sadly, the truth is that Barnett and co-counsel Michael Schwartz likely could have limited their high-priced utterances to the assertion of a lone fact–their clients had been on-duty cops during the killing–then sat down in silence for the remainder of the trial and reaped the same verdicts.
The defense lawyers know the quickest way to Orange County jurors' hearts is to remind them, as Barnett continuously did, the defendants patrolled the–don't laugh–"mean streets of Fullerton," kept the public safe from hoodlums and didn't deserve to be second-guessed on "split-second decisions" about using deadly force.
To reinforce that strategy during their closing arguments, Barnett and Schwartz growled in theatrical contempt that the DA had the nerve to question cops who, they said, get up every morning, put on a uniform and risk their lives.
There's nothing original about the tactic we can call the Colonel Nathan R. Jessup defense from A Few Good Men: "I have neither the time nor the inclination to defend myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it!"
But the DA did rightly question the killing of Thomas because it was (to anyone being honest) savagely unnecessary, and while police officers in California enjoy extraordinary, special rights, they don't yet have codified, blanket immunity.
Rackauckas' error wasn't botching a cross-examination. He didn't forget to call an important, trial-altering witness. Some may say he should have filed only excessive force counts and avoided the more sensational murder charge.
In truth, he mistakenly believed he had a fair chance to convince a jury inside our cop-loving county to hold police accountable.
I've witnessed a juror (elderly, white male) walk up to a police officer after his acquittal for beating a handcuffed suspect seated in the back of a patrol car in Anaheim and say he thought the officer should have beaten the Latino suspect more severely.
In another case, a white-male-dominated OC jury refused to find an on-duty Irvine cop guilty of any crime after he turned off the GPS device in the trunk of his patrol vehicle, drove to a strip club (Captain Cream), waited for a certain stripper to leave in the wee hours of the morning, tailed her out of his jurisdiction and into Laguna Beach, pulled her over on a dark section of the highway for an imaginary traffic infraction, and–you can't make this up–ejaculated on her; (See "Illegal Park-ed: An Irvine Cop ejaculates on motorist but escapes criminal liability, Feb. 8, 2007).
As with injustices from the past, the Kelly Thomas result will add to growing community frustration. During the DA's post-verdict press conference, members of "Kelly's Army" didn't back Ron Thomas' praise for the prosecution or hide their anger that pending charges against Joseph Wolfe, another cop involved in the case, will be dropped.
They interrupted Rackauckas' remarks and yelled statements such as "There was no passion [during the trial]," "The lion lost its teeth," "Nobody's safe now" and "We believed in you!"
Walking away surrounded by key assistants and several body guards, a somber Rackauckas shook his head, rolled his eyes and said, "Gosh, it doesn't take long, does it?"
In contrast, a smiling Cicinelli reacted noisily as though his favorite football team had scored a winning touchdown when the court clerk read the last of the four "not guilty" verdicts. His relief is understandable. While Ramos spent the entire trial looking smug, Cicinelli often appeared worried. He stared away from jurors during the introduction of audio evidence proving he bragged to other cops about "smashing" Thomas' face "to hell."
With the trial now part of history, let's return to the legitimate question asked by grandmothers and dentists and truck drivers and businessmen and housewives and students during weeks of intense protests at the Fullerton PD in the wake of the killing:
Is it okay for six veteran cops to claim they couldn't figure out how to control the limbs of a smaller, weaker subject already on the ground and needed to kick, punch and stomp the unarmed man to death?
David Whiting, an Orange County Register columnist prone to bootlicking police on a regular basis, provided his answer: "Regardless of Kelly Thomas verdicts, Orange County holds its head high."
That from the same journalist who, at the outset, incredibly described the one-sided, fatal police assault as a "tussle."
I'm guessing more than a few of you fellow residents aren't so proud of this county today.