U.S.

FBI to revisit fatal beating of Calif. homeless man after police cleared

The father of Kelly Thomas tells Al Jazeera the 'decision to literally acquit them on all charges is very shocking'

Footage from a security camera that shows much of the altercation between Fullerton police officers and Kelly Thomas at the Fullerton bus depot was played during a preliminary hearing in May 2012.
Joshua Sudock-Pool/Getty Images

The FBI plans to re-examine the beating death of a mentally ill California man after a jury acquitted two ex-policemen of all charges in connection with the fatal confrontation, which touched off protests and political upheaval in the city of Fullerton. 

A lawyer for Jay Cicinelli, one of the two former officers at the center of the case, said his client would seek to be rehired by the Fullerton Police Department now that he had been cleared of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force charges in the 2011 death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas. 

Orange County prosecutors had accused the two men, who approached Thomas near a bus depot to question him about reports of vandalized cars, of turning a routine law enforcement encounter into an unnecessary and savage bludgeoning that cost the unarmed homeless man his life. 

Defense lawyers Cicinelli and co-defendant Manuel Ramos, who were acquitted in the case, argued at the trial that Thomas was dangerous and that the officers responded according to their training. They also said the transient suffered from a weak heart brought on by drug abuse. 

Thomas' father, Ron Thomas said the issue of drugs abuse was a false narrative and told Al Jazeera's America Tonight that the acquittal was "shocking." 

"The decision to literally acquit them on all charges is very shocking – at least at a bare minimum excessive force, but they didn't even get that," Ron Thomas said. "They beat him to death and now they’re just going to walk away free."

Meanwhile, FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said in a statement Tuesday that the FBI had opened an investigation in 2011 to determine if Thomas' civil rights were violated during the altercation.

"With the conclusion of the state court trial, investigators will examine the evidence and testimony to determine if further investigation is warranted at the federal level," Eimiller said. 

Thomas' brutal beating as he was subdued by six officers was caught on a surveillance camera at the bus station and led to angry street demonstrations in Fullerton, 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles, as well as the ouster of three city council members in a recall election. 

On the videotape, Ramos is seen strapping latex gloves on his hands, balling them into fists in Thomas's face and telling the drifter, whom he knew from previous encounters: "You see these fists? They are getting ready to f--- you up." 

By the end of the tape, Thomas can be heard screaming for help as officers swarm over him, delivering multiple blows and shocks with a stun gun. He is heard calling dozens of times for his father to help him, yelling: "Daddy, they're killing me." 

Spotlight on mental health

When asked why the jury ultimately decided to acquit the officers, criminal behavior expert Barry Spodak told Al Jazeera that "a lot of people on juries don't want to question what the police do."

"They don't understand police work, they don't understand responsibilities of police officers," Spodak said. 

In contrast, when it comes to the homeless, Spodak said "most people don't want to have anything to do with these people because we fear that they might be dangerous, that they might do anything that we don't expect."

Spodak said the answers to dealing with the issue lay in both training and temperament and that law enforcement had become "the front line of mental health delivery here in the United States." 

"Unless funds are given to mental health systems, police are going to continue to have to do these jobs," Spodak said.  

The city of Fullerton has already agreed to pay $1 million to Thomas's mother in a negotiated settlement of any claims she might have brought in her son's death. The victim's parents are divorced and litigating separately.

In 2012, Fullerton's acting chief of police posthumously exonerated Thomas of any wrongdoing in connection with the confrontation, saying he was cleared of any suspicion that he provoked the violent struggle that led to his death. 

Al Jazeera and Reuters 

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