On the night of July 5th, 2011, police officers in Fullerton, California responded to a 911 call that a homeless man was wandering through a bus station parking lot and trying the handles of parked car doors. Police officers Manuel Ramos and Joe Wolfe arrived on the scene and attempted to question the man, but he refused to answer questions or even give his name. After searching his backpack and finding mail, ID cards, and other items that did not belong to him, the officers suspected him of theft and realized they might need to arrest him. What followed was the violent resisting of the responding officer’s attempt to subdue and arrest the suspect. Following the suspect’s death, two officers faced charges of murder. During their trial, video evidence played a crucial role.
The suspect, a homeless man later identified as 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, continued to resist requests of the officers, got up, and began to flee.
The officers tackled the suspect to the ground, at which point he began to kick, punch, and even bite the officers as they struggled to control him. A third officer, Jay Cicinelli, arrived after the fight was already in full progress, saw his two fellow officers on the ground, and rushed in to help and subdue the still-combative suspect.
After several additional minutes of struggle, the officers did subdue Thomas. Five days later, Thomas died in an Orange County hospital.
Through the use of numerous sources of video and audio evidence prepared by NCAVF and testimony by witnesses, the trial demonstrated that officers followed their training regarding proper technique when questioning and subduing a suspect. Yet, in this situation, as the video showed, nothing seemed to work. Initially, the two officers tried to subdue Thomas with their strength, but Thomas’ strength proved to exceed what the two officers could handle. Corporal Cicinelli then arrived and attempted to use his taser, but that didn’t work. Thomas actually fought through the shock of the electric current and continued to fight, seemingly unphased, and then grabbed onto Cicinelli’s taser.
Left with no other option and realizing that the situation was spiraling out of control, Corporal Cicinelli first hit the suspect in the arm — the arm trying to grab his taser — and, when that didn’t stop Thomas, Cicinelli made a split-second decision to use the butt of his taser to physically strike Thomas in the head.
Following the incident, as we’ve seen in case after case, the public was flooded with incorrect information regarding the incident. The police officers reputations were attacked. The incident was labeled a “police brutality” case by the public and the media, going as far as to call it a “beating”, with no real inquiry into the actual facts or chain of events.
Due to the public outrage, Officers Ramos and Cicinelli were charged in the death of Kelly Thomas, marking the first time ever in the history of Orange County that an on-duty officer was charged with a murder. Officer Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and was facing 15 years to life in prison, while Corporal Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force and was facing a 4 years in prison.
On January 13th, 2014, over two years after the incident and after a month of trial, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were acquitted of all charges with a unanimous not guilty verdict by the jury after only 6 to 7 hours of deliberation.
It was a monumental victory for defense attorneys Michael Schwartz and John Barnett, and NCAVF lead expert David Notowitz was honored to serve as the sole video and audio expert on the case for the defense team. The enhanced video and audio evidence prepared by NCAVF over two and a half years played a pivotal role in the officer’s acquittal and established that they acted reasonably and carefully, and that they did not intend to kill anyone that night.
NCAVF wishes to acknowledge that a family is grieving regarding the loss of their son. We send our thoughts and prayers to the family of Kelly Thomas.