- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - The district attorney who charged two California police officers with the beating death of a mentally ill homeless man said surveillance video of the struggle provided clear evidence of wrongdoing. But in the end, the footage wasn’t enough and may have helped defense lawyers win the case, legal experts said.

A jury acquitted the two Fullerton officers of all charges on Monday after a trial in which the 33-minute video was the central piece of evidence.

The verdict shocked supporters of the family of Kelly Thomas who were confident of a conviction because the footage shows six officers piling on Thomas, kneeing him and punching him as he cries out for his father and begs for air.

Ron Thomas has said his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia and didn’t understand the officers’ commands.

Juries don’t like to convict police officers for actions taken in the line of duty, and the prosecution’s decision to charge one of the Fullerton officers with murder set the bar even higher, experts said.

During the trial, defense lawyers used the video to weave a different narrative of events, telling jurors it showed that Thomas didn’t follow a lawful order, fled from the officers and struggled violently as they were trying to cuff him.

“If the defense can say, ‘Aha, look at this, this is why these officers were able to do this. This is what justified it’ then, whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter because the jury wants to fall on the side of the cops,” said Geoff Alpert, an expert on police use of deadly force and a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina.

Former officer Manuel Ramos was acquitted on charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the case. Former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.

The FBI is reviewing the case to see if federal charges are justified now that the state trial is done.

The video shows that Cicinelli shocked Thomas with his electric stun gun multiple times and struck him on the head and face with the butt of the gun, shattering bones and causing Thomas‘ eye to hemorrhage. The officer’s attorney, Michael Schwartz, slowed the video down frame-by-frame and told the jury Thomas was trying to grab the stun gun.

“You can look at something like that and conclude that the officers made a serious error in judgment, and still be reluctant to convict them,” said Lawrence Rosenthal, a law professor at Chapman University School of Law and a former federal prosecutor. “It’s another dramatic reminder of what most people already know: it’s very difficult to obtain convictions in these kinds of cases.”

On Tuesday, Cicinelli - who, along with Ramos, was fired - told The Orange County Register he will fight to get his job back.

None of the jurors have spoken publicly about their decision.

The surveillance video began with Ramos stopping Thomas on July 5, 2011, after the officer answered a call about a disheveled man jiggling the handles of car doors in a busy transit center parking lot.

The footage was synced with audio from Ramos‘ body microphone to give a fuller picture of the incident.

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