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A Homeless Son's Death at the Hands of Police Spurs a Father's Call for Justice

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"Christ is hidden under the suffering appearance of anyone who is hungry, naked, homeless, or dying," Nobel Prize winner Mother Teresa said of the less fortunate who called the streets of Calcutta home. "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise," she explained. Apparently some entrusted to protect violently disagree and are now being brought to justice.

On July 5, Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally disabled homeless man, was allegedly murdered by police near a Fullerton, California bus depot in an incident that Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said "never had to happen." Among the last things a terrified and confused Kelly Thomas heard were the sounds of latex gloves snapping and the voice of Fullerton Police Officer Manuel Ramos, also 37, threatening, "See my fists.... They are getting ready to f--k you up." Ramos and other officers were investigating a call of a homeless person jiggling door handles in the parking lot of the public transportation center in downtown Fullerton, a diverse city of 135,000 30 miles south of Los Angeles, only minutes from Disneyland.

According to the Orange County District Attorney it took less than ten minutes for the conscious life to be violently knocked out of Kelley Thomas in a terrible tornado of violence detailed in today's Los Angles Times:

Thomas was tackled, hit with a baton, pinned to the ground, punched repeatedly in the ribs, kneed in the head, Tasered four times and then struck in the face with the Taser device eight times.

Despite Thomas being squashed into the ground and pleading for his life, the beating continued even after he apologized, while gasping for breathe, imploring officers -- "I can't breathe." After his begging and apologies went unheeded, Thomas desperately made one of his final requests: He called out for his father, "Dad, help me!" As spectators watched and recording devices captured the events, the beating continued even after Thomas' bloodied and broken body ceased to move or plead anymore. Thomas was transported to hospital where he died five days later. The gruesome hospital photographs resembled that of a modern day homeless Emmett Till, a bloodied and discolored unconscious man with tubes jammed in his throat, barely recognizable in contrast to images of his former self.

The killing has created a firestorm of political recriminations and investigations that have shaken the police department and city government. A current city council member and former police chief personally hired two of the officers alleged to be most culpable for the attack. Three investigations have been focused on the event: local prosecutors, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Office of Independent Review, an autonomous agency from Los Angles led by a respected former federal prosecutor.

Following the attack, an exhaustive 11-week investigation was launched with seven full-time District Attorney investigators and various other support staff. During the course of the review 153 witnesses and responders were interviewed, and numerous contemporaneous videos of the scene, as well as digital audio recorded by some of the officers were analyzed. A coroner's report concluded the death to be a homicide by asphyxiation. In addition Thomas' injuries according to the District Attorney included "brain injuries, facial fractures, rib fractures, and extensive bruising and abrasions."

Yesterday, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced the charging of two officers in connection to the killing of Kelly Thomas. It is the first such instance of a prosecution of on-duty officers for such serious felonies during his tenure as District Attorney. Officer Manuel Ramos, who has ten years on the force was charged with second degree murder as well as a lesser included offense, involuntary manslaughter. Ramos faces a possible sentence of fifteen years to life in prison. In California acting with "implied malice" can constitute murder if one engages in purposeful conduct that is known to be dangerous to life and is conducted with a great disregard to that risk. Similarly, involuntary manslaughter, a charge not as serious as murder, generally relates to an unlawful killing that also involves dangerous or reckless conduct without the actual intent to kill. While both counts are charged to Officer Ramos, a jury, if it finds him culpable for the death, can only find him guilty of either murder or manslaughter, but not both. Another officer, Corporal Jay Cicinelli, was charged involuntary manslaughter and felony use of excessive force. He faces a possible four-year prison sentence. Four other officers involved in the incident were not charged due to lack of evidence, although they could be charged later by the District Attorney, or the Civil Rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, under 18 United States Code sections 242, which prohibits deprivation of civil rights "under color of law." That was the post Civil War federal law used to prosecute police in the Rodney King case. The District Attorney has shared his file on the matter with federal investigators.

At the end of his son's life, Kelly's father Ron, a former police officer himself, could not hear his son's final pleas for help. However, in death Ron has been the indefatigable poised messenger for justice that his son can no longer be. Ron has made a simple yet powerful plea:

I need the truth... You may have noticed I've been able to apply some pressure. I'll continue to do so.

Ron said yesterday of Ramos, "He's wearing handcuffs right now -- which is great -- for the murder of my son." Ron's message echoed by Mother Theresa, is that divinity is found in all, including the most challenged among us. Moreover, unlike nearly every other country in the world the modern United States has consistently made protection of the poor a part of our national ethos, but not always our actions. Emma Lazarus captured that sentiment in her poem "The New Colossus" inscribed on our Statue of Liberty:

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Those special few, tasked with protecting society must be the watchful guardian against brutality for our "tempest tossed" most vulnerable residents, not the perpetrators of it. A civilized society can demand nothing less.

Editor's note: Prof. Levin, a former NYPD officer, is a pro bono consultant to the National Coalition for the Homeless who has written about violence against the homeless and has testified on the topic before the United States and California Senate.

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