Laurie Levenson, Professor of Law, William M. Rains Fellow and David W. Burcham Chair in Ethical Advocacy, was quoted in a previous article published by The Orange County Register on May 9, 2012 which discussed the Kelly Thomas trial. This is Levenson's response to recent case developments.
In some ways, the Kelly Thomas beating case is, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "deja vu all over again." Having watched the Rodney King trial, I can appreciate the enormous challenge of prosecuting police officers. Jurors tend to give them every benefit of the doubt. After all, police do the difficult job that many of us do not want to do. Yet, even police officers can cross the line. The Orange County District Attorney's Office must not only prove that this was bad police work, but that it rose to the level of criminal behavior that put defendant Ramos in prison for the rest of his life.
The video of the beating is powerful. It is hard to watch, but it is even harder to listen to. As Thomas cries, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and pleads for help, one cannot help but have a visceral reaction. However, a visceral reaction may not be enough to win a murder case. If the Rodney King case is any type of precedent, we should also look for other evidence that will prove what was going on in the defendant's head. Did Officer Ramos realize he might kill Thomas? Did he act with deliberate indifference? Did he try to cover up what he did? Did he laugh and joke, like the King officers did, about what he did? What statements did he make about his actions? Why did he do it? Did his acts even cause the death?
This case is only in its early stages. As it moves through the criminal justice process, it is best to keep in mind that this will not be an easy trial. It is also important to remember that one criminal prosecution cannot cure all of the ills of our criminal justice system. We have a problem with how police interact with the mentally ill. That issue must be addressed, regardless of the outcome of this case.