Friday, November 30, 2012

Three Little Piggies Went to Court


Three of Fullerton's Finest appeared this morning before Judge Froeberg in Department 40 of the Orange County Superior Court.  The case had been scheduled for a "995 Motion" (more on that below).  After taking brief statements from District Attorney Tony Rauckauckas and counsel for each of the defendants, parties stipulated that the hearing would be continued to January 18.

Officer Manny Ramos (top left) stands accused of Murder and Involuntary Manslaughter.  Corporal Jay Cicinelli (top right) is accused of Involuntary Manslaughter and Assault & Battery by a Police Officer.  Officer Joe Wolfe (bottom) faces the same charges as Cicinelli.  All three are accused of causing the death of mentally ill homeless man Kelly Thomas during a brutal confrontation last July at the Fullerton Transit Center.  The beating was captured on city-operated cameras.  During the beating, Kelly can be heard crying for help and repeatedly apologizing to the officers before he takes his last breath.

Ramos is accused of instigating the confrontation by threatening Thomas.  At one point in the video, Ramos is seen putting on latex gloves.  He says to Thomas, "See these fists?  They're getting ready to fuck you up."  At one point after receiving the threats, Thomas attempted to run from Ramos.  Officer Wolfe was the first to strike Thomas with a baton, quickly taking the 130-pound Thomas to the ground.  Cicinelli arrived on the scene after the beating had already begun.  Cicinelli deployed his taser into Thomas several times, then began using the butt of the weapon to pound the victim in the face repeatedly (I suspect Cicinelli is going to learn something about "butt pounding" where he's going).  Cicinelli can be heard on the audio recording saying "I just started smashing his face to hell".  Thomas died after being removed from life support 5 days later.

As I have explained in prior posts, every felony defendant has a right to a "probable cause" hearing.  The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether or not there is enough evidence that a reasonable jury MIGHT possibly vote to convict.  If there is not, we should stop wasting the court's time and the case should be dismissed.  If there is, then we must start preparing for an eventual trial.

There are two ways for the court to determine whether or not "probable cause" exists.  The first and most common way is by conducting a "preliminary hearing" (also commonly referred to a "preliminary examination", "prelim" or just "PX").  At the PX, the DA will present most of their case-in-chief.  Typically, an investigating officer will take the stand and say something like this: "I received a call of a domestic disturbance.  When I arrived at the residence, the victim had a bloody lip and the suspect had blood on his hands.  Witnesses told me that the suspect had punched the victim, so I arrested the suspect.".  After hearing the evidence, a judge will typically find that probable cause exists and the defendant is thereafter "held to answer" to the charges.

The other (and must more rare) way for probable cause to be established is by a Grand Jury.  The Grand Jury is group of volunteers who sit on the panel for one-year terms.  They meet in secret to review the facts and to decide whether or not sufficient evidence exists that a suspect could be convicted of a particular crime.  If they decide that probable cause exists, the defendant is thereafter "indicted" for the crimes.  The Grand Jury is more expensive and time-consuming than the PX, so it is only used in very sensitive cases or cases wherein the suspect is a public figure.  The DA may be reluctant to publicly charge a politician with some wrongdoing unless he is confident that the charges will actually stick.  In cases like these, prosecutors can opt for the secrecy of the Grand Jury rather than the usual PX.

In this case, Ramos and Cicinelli were initially charged in the typical manner.  They were publicly accused and subjected to a PX.  After hearing the evidence, a judge determined that probable cause existed and both were thereafter "held to answer" for their crimes.  Wolfe, however, was indicted by the Grand Jury several months later.  This, to me, suggests that DA Tony Rackauckas was reluctant for some reason to publicly charge Wolfe with the serious crimes alleged.  Rather than risking a political firestorm by filing excessive charges and running the risk that some could be dismissed, he instead opted for the Grand Jury route.  If the Grand Jury had determined that there was no probable cause, Officer Wolfe would never be charged and could be spared the public embarrassment of such an accusation.  Of course, the Grand Jury did return an indictment and Wolfe now stands next to Ramos and Cicinelli as all three await trial.

We know that 5 Fullerton Police Officers were involved in the beating that killed Kelly Thomas.  Many in the community have called for charges to be brought against the remaining two, but the DA has declined to do so.  Of course, we will never know if Rackauckas has presented those cases to the Grand Jury.  It is entirely possible (pure speculation) that the DA HAS presented those suspects to the Grand Jury and the Grand Jury has declined to indict because they found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Long story short, probable cause has now been established against all three accused officers.  Their defense attorneys have filed documents called "995 Motions".  A 995 Motion essentially asks the judge to dismiss a case after the PX if a defendant has been unlawfully "held to answer".  The defense is arguing that errors were made at the prelim (or, in Wolfe's case, at the Grand Jury) and that probable cause was found where none actually existed.  The 995 is always a long-shot and never really very likely to succeed.  Failing to file the motion would probably be considered malpractice on the part of the defense attorneys, though.  It's kind of a proverbial "shot in the dark", but one worth taking.

Today had been the day for argument on the 995 motions.  Defense attorneys for the accused asked the judge for more time, however, because the evidence is voluminous and the issues are complicated.  By stipulation of the parties, it was agreed that argument would be postponed until January 18, 2013.  Ron Thomas, father of the victim, addressed the court to oppose the continuance, but Judge Froeberg allowed the delay over Mr. Thomas' objection.

The defendants exited the courtroom immediately after the ruling.  They were flanked by a large group of family and supporters, including armed escorts.  An overweight Hispanic woman, presumably Ramos' wife or a female relative, was seen taunting Kelly's family as the crowd spilled into the hallway.  Ramos laughed and told her "You're funny" as he stepped into the elevator.

Check back on January 18 more another exciting update to the saga.  I will continue covering this story until there is justice for Kelly Thomas.