A white Los Angeles police officer went on trial for assault Wednesday over accusations she kicked a handcuffed black woman in a patrol car and ignored her pleas for medical attention during an arrest that ended with the woman's death.
Officer Mary O'Callaghan is charged with assault under color of authority but not in the subsequent death of 35-year-old Alesia Thomas, who died in the back of the patrol car after telling the officer she couldn't breathe.
A video camera in the squad car captured O'Callaghan kicking Thomas in the stomach and groin, and hitting her in the throat, the Los Angesles Times reported. After Thomas lost consciousness inside the police car, paramedics were called, but she died soon after arriving at the hospital.
The coroner's office listed the official cause of death as "undetermined," but added that cocaine intoxication likely played a major role in the July 2012 death of Thomas. They said that it wasn't possible to determine what role, if any, the struggle with O'Callaghan played in Thomas' death, the Los Angeles Times added.
But Assistant Head Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby told jurors in opening statements Wednesday that while O'Callaghan is not accused of causing Thomas' death, she did unnecessarily inflict force on Thomas out of frustration that she would not sit in the cruiser.
O'Callaghan, 50, faces up to three years in prison if convicted. Officers were at Thomas' home that day responding to allegations that she had abandoned her children, and after an interview, she was placed under arrest, according to the Los Angeles Times.
It took nearly three years to get this point, because after Thomas' death in 2012, her family had to sue the LADP in order to obtain the dash cam footage. Additionally, the first trial in which O'Callaghan was accused of abuse was declared a mistrial by the judge in February because of the introduction of new evidence.
This second trial, which is expected to last until next week, comes amid a series of fatal police confrontations across the United States that have put law enforcement agencies under scrutiny over the use of force, particularly against minorities and the mentally ill.
The efforts of O'Callaghan and other officers to force Thomas into the back of a car were captured on a camera in that cruiser, and prosecutors showed the video to the jury of 11 women and one man.
O'Callaghan drove up to assist other officers who were arresting Thomas, and on a recording, she could be heard threatening to kick Thomas in the groin, an act that Presby said O'Callaghan later carried out.
Thomas told O'Callaghan that she could not breathe, but the officer thought she was faking, the prosecutor said.
"The defendant never stopped to listen, she kicked first and asked questions later," Presby said.
Jurors saw video of O'Callaghan using her foot against an agitated Thomas in the patrol car and also shoving her back with a hand to the neck or upper chest.
O'Callaghan's attorney Robert Rico said his client did not kick Thomas but only pushed her back into the car with her foot and her hand, in a justified use of force. She was trying to apply a leg restraint on Thomas, who had been continuously kicking her feet, he said.
"Uses of force by police officers are never pretty," Rico told jurors.
Al Jazeera and Reuters