Kelly Thomas: 2nd degree murder difficult to prove, experts say
Legal experts said it was unsurprising that the officers charged in Kelly Thomas' death were held to answer on all counts, because the burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is extremely low.
The outcome at trial will be much more of a wildcard, particularly because of the unusual nature of the second-degree murder charge against Officer Manuel Ramos.
"In other cases, you typically have the officer using deadly force," said Ira Salzman, a Pasadena-based attorney who has defended police officers.
In this case, the basis of the charge against Ramos is threatening gestures and the inflammatory statement "See these fists? They're getting ready to [mess] you up?" Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas argued that Ramos' actions goaded Thomas into a fight-or-flight reaction and "turned a routine encounter into a brutal beating death."
Salzman said the fact that the charge is based on Ramos' behavior leading up to the violent confrontation, not on his physical use of force, could make the murder charge more difficult to prove, but that jury instructions could be set up to assist the prosecution.
Jody Armour, a USC law professor who studies racial profiling and excessive force cases, agreed that the case against Ramos may be charting new territory.
"This is really unusual," he said. "This is a prosecution believing it has facts to support a difficult charge to prove."
Both Armour and Salzman said the video evidence in the Kelly Thomas case, although it has drawn a visceral reaction from the public, does not necessarily mean a jury is more likely to convict if the case goes to trial. Armour pointed to the Rodney King case, in which a jury acquitted the officers despite video evidence.
The Thomas case, he said, will be in some sense a test case for "how far we've come."
"It's going to get at a lot of issues that are roiling right under the surface of police conduct cases," he said.
-- Abby Sewell