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Two and a half years later, society finally has its say regarding how Kelly Thomas died.
No one contests that Manuel Ramos threatened to hurt Kelly Thomas. No one contests that Ramos beat Thomas with a nightstick. No one contests that Jay Cicinelli electrocuted Thomas, that he broke his face and nose, and that he caused substantial bleeding as a result. No one contests that at one point six members of the Fullerton Police Department put all or part of their body weight on top of Thomas to pin him to the concrete. No one contests that none of the officers involved received any injury more serious than what my three year old receives after an average school day. No one contests that Kelly begged for his life, asked even politely for the officers to stop beating him, and that his last words were cries for his father’s help. No one contests that five days after being beaten by members of the Fullerton Police Department, life left Kelly’s bruised and broken body.
This isn’t a trial about interpreting facts. It’s incredibly rare to have a homicide preserved almost in its entirety by video and audio evidence. We know what happened. We know who was there. We know who left in pieces and who did not.
This trial is about assigning worth to individuals in society. Let’s not dance around it.
The prosecution wants you to believe that everyone, regardless of past history or current station in life, has value. That we all breathe, fear, and bleed. We have a shared right to be free from harm and that when a member of our society hurts another person that he or she ought to be held accountable for not only violating the rights of an individual, but also for breaching the social contract that binds society together: Love thy neighbor.
The defense wants you to believe something else. The defense wants you to believe that decisions in life have consequences. That ultimately fate deals us a hand that is a product of our own choosing and that sometimes those results aren’t pretty. They want you to believe that some of us have made better choices than others, and that those of us who have get rewarded by being granted a higher station in society. They want you to believe that trust and respect are not an innate product of one’s humanity but rather a product of one’s rank in society. If your rank is lower than that of another it is your responsibility as a subordinate member of society to obey and conform without hesitation. Failure to yield means forced compliance. Forced compliance means you are responsible for the ensuing outcome, and you alone. The defense’s maxim is different: Do as you’re told and all will be well.
Twelve men and women will begin discussing if Kelly Thomas deserved to die sometime Thursday afternoon. They’ll be given detailed instructions regarding the legal definitions of murder and manslaughter. They’ll sit down in a room and discuss testimony. Eventually they’ll agree on a decision, or they’ll agree to disagree, and probably sometime early next week we’ll all know if they believe that Thomas either dug his own grave or if Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli forcibly put him in one.
Between now and then, consider this. The two most common defenses for war crimes during World War Two, in both Europe and Asia, were 1) They deserved it and 2) I was just following orders.
The defense has offered nothing more substantial than “Kelly Thomas deserved it” and “I was just doing what I was trained to do.” Does that make them guilty? No . . . but after two and a half years to prepare, that’s the best they could do.
We have a responsibility to make the rules of our world transparent to those that would enforce them. Let’s hope that the twelve jurors in Santa Ana are wise, brave, and fair.