Kelly Thomas Beating Death: 2 Ex-Cops Acquitted

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on January 14, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Two former police officers have been acquitted of all charges in the 2011 beating and stun-gun death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally-ill homeless man.

The gruesome surveillance footage of the beating stirred public outrage and highlighted the public's growing concern over police brutality, particularly toward the mentally ill and homeless population.

But why were ex-Fullerton police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli found not guilty of all charges?

Ramos: No Malice Aforethought

Ramos, 39, was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in Kelly Thomas' beating death. On the video, Ramos is seen making fists in front of Thomas's face, saying, "Now you see my fists?... They're getting ready to f--k you up," reports the Los Angeles Times.

In order to make their case, prosecutors needed to show that Ramos acted with "malice aforethought" -- that he had the intent to kill or utter disregard for the potential damage that his actions could have caused.

Malice aforethought is a difficult thing to prove when applied to police officers, because the law allows them to use deadly force as part of the job. Courts typically give officers a considerable amount of deference to make use-of-force decisions while on duty.

Despite the graphic video, Ramos's malice aforethought apparently proved too difficult to establish.

Cicinelli: Not Reckless or Criminally Negligent

Cicinelli, a 41-year-old ex-corporal, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Cicinelli repeatedly hit Thomas with a stun gun and shocked him with the device multiple times.

The lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter that both Ramos and Cicinelli faced only requires that the perpetrator was reckless or criminally negligent during the killing; unlike murder, the killing is unintentional.

But again, like murder charges, involuntary manslaughter charges against police officers are inherently difficult because their job allows them to use deadly force in the line of duty.

Even on the lesser charge of excessive force, the jury seems to have come to the conclusion that Cicinelli used the gun as a last resort to subdue Thomas and was acting within his powers as an officer.

The Takeaway

Prosecutors had to prove the officers had the intent to harm Thomas above and beyond responding to his actions. The verdict shows jurors believed that prosecutors failed to meet that burden.

Given the compelling video surveillance evidence and its graphic footage of multiple officers beating a schizophrenic homeless man to death, there is some curiosity about how the jury came back with a sweep of not guilty verdicts after a mere two days of deliberations.

As happens in other police brutality cases, a civil lawsuit over Kelly Thomas' beating death has been filed by Thomas' father, Reuters reports. The city of Fullerton has already paid Thomas' mother a $1 million settlement.

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