On Wednesday May 9 Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm announced that Fullerton Police Officers Jay Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos would stand trial for the death of Kelly Thomas, an unarmed, schizophrenic homeless man savagely beaten and asphyxiated by six Fullerton, California police officers on July 5, 2011. Thomas would die five days later from injuries sustained during the attack.
Given new evidence made public during this week’s preliminary hearing, the announcement came as little surprise, even in a case that seeks to criminally prosecute two police officers in a nation where it is notoriously difficult to hold law enforcement agents accountable for unlawful conduct.
A newly released surveillance video that recorded police officers beating and suffocating Thomas to death is drawing appropriate levels of condemnation and outrage in this country and has garnered international media attention. The video definitively shows that Kelly Thomas, described as “gentle,” “childlike,” and “harmless” by Fullerton residents, never posed a physical threat to police, nor did he “violently resist arrest” as John Barnett, attorney for officer Ramos, claimed last year.
In the surveillance video, Officer Ramos tells Thomas [at 15:20 in the full-length video] “See my fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up,” after which officers proceed to beat Thomas for nearly eight minutes. During the attack officers punch, knee, “surgically” beat Thomas’ head and face with the butt of a Taser, and shoot him four times with the device. In a shocking moment of pure callousness [at 28:00 in the full-length video], officers share a laugh after the beating while Thomas lies unconscious on the ground in a pool of his own blood. The video also corroborates publicly available eyewitness accounts of the police attack.
Pathologist Dr. Aruna Singhania, who examined the body of Kelly Thomas, testified in court this week that Thomas “ultimately died of brain death” due to asphyxiation, a result of officers pinning his chest to the pavement. “Blunt force facial injuries” and the presence of copious amounts of blood made it more difficult for Thomas to get the oxygen his body desperately needed. To put it quite simply, Kelly Thomas would still be alive if Fullerton police officers did not kill him.
The Thomas family had been asking for the public release of the video since July 2011. With the degree of violence captured on the video, speculation that Fullerton and Orange County withheld its release to quell public outrage now seems well-founded. What is more, withholding its release gave Fullerton police and city officials, officer attorneys and the police-wing of the mainstream media months to spin and sow doubt as to the actual events surrounding the murder of Kelly Thomas.
The video in fact refutes most of their early claims on events surrounding Thomas’ death and places into question the very ethics of these aforementioned parties.
Instead of arresting and charging the six officers in the immediate aftermath of their heinous crime, Fullerton permitted the officers to carry out “business as usual.” Each was allowed to keep their government-issued weapons, their publicly vested authority, and their taxpayer funded paychecks.
Four weeks after the officers murdered Kelly Thomas, and only after the media, the FBI and Department of Justice were drawn to the case, the city of Fullerton finally decided to act by placing the six police officers on paid administrative leave.
In a statement that sufficiently captures the conduct of Fullerton officials, R. Scott Moxley of OC Weekly writes
“City officials have attempted to pay the 37-year-old victim’s father–Ron Thomas, an outraged former Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy, and his ex-wife–$900,000 as compensation for their loss. Why outraged? Well, in addition to the unnecessary grotesque killing of his son, the police have admitted no wrongdoing, angrily attacked the media for focusing on the story, apparently kept the involved officers on duty and then attempted to muzzle him with a settlement check before any investigation has been completed. And this: A city official reportedly told the parents that they would have offered more money but their son was ‘no rocket scientist.’”
In a surreal act that may as well have starred the Boss Hogg character from “The Dukes of Hazard,” Fullerton Mayor Dick Jones publicly remarked that he did not know why Thomas had died, adding that he had “seen far worse injuries that were survivable” during the Vietnam War.
While mainstream media coverage of this case has been fairly strong overall, it too has periodically facilitated the proliferation of false narratives. At its worst, coverage appears intent on limiting officer culpability and public indignation. In a piece critical of media coverage of the Thomas slaying, one Forbes Magazine blogger notes some of the clever rhetoric deployed by NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate:
“Notice how the beating and multiple tasings are described as a ‘scuffle’. Notice also how NBC does its best to avoid linking said ‘scuffle’ to the death of Kelly Thomas. He simply ‘later died’ as though the two instances were almost entirely unrelated.”
The writer Erik Kain continues
“Good grief people, I realize this is reporting […] but show a little humanity. The ‘scuffle’ left a man dead for goodness sakes. There’s something seriously wrong with that, and maybe your reporting should at least reflect that a tiny bit. At least give us context.”
Only two of the six Fullerton police officers involved in the slaying currently face criminal charges. Officer Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Officer Cicinelli meanwhile has only been charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. The other four officers remain on paid administrative leave “pending the outcome of an internal investigation and an FBI criminal probe.”
The Orange County DA has surprisingly exonerated officer Joe Wolfe, seen on video with officer Ramos initiating the attack against Kelly Thomas. However, should the FBI or Justice Department pursue federal prosecutions, it is hard to imagine that officer Wolfe would not face charges for violating Thomas’ civil rights – at the very least.
Given the powerful evidence provided by the surveillance video, the coroner’s report, and numerous eyewitness accounts, failure by federal authorities to bring charges against all six officers would amount to another form of violence against the Thomas family, which has already endured so much.