Twelve members of a jury will be trusted to decide whether or not unreasonable force was used in the beating of Kelly Thomas, deciding the legal fate of two men on trial for murder and involuntary manslaughter.
According to the Los Angeles Times and other news sources, Judge William Froeberg’s instructions to jurors in the trial of former Fullerton Police officers Manual Ramos and Jay Cicinelli direct them to “determine whether the defendants used excessive or unreasonable force based on all the evidence that has been presented…”
Judge Froeberg’s instructions are part of a deal worked out between the prosecution and the defense over whether or not to admit as evidence the contents of personnel files turned over to the court by the City of Fullerton last week. Defense attorneys, and the City of Fullerton itself, sought to prevent the District Attorney from having access to the normally private records.
The records presumably show that Ramos and Cicinelli were fired by the FPD for violations of policy, a fact the DA sought to introduce as evidence in order to rebut earlier testimony by serving members of the FPD who claimed that they saw little or no evidence of such policy violations. Rather than admit the records as evidence, Judge Froeberg instead ruled that the earlier testimony should be ignored by jurors.
“It is up to you to determine whether the defendants used excessive or unreasonable force based on all the evidence that has been presented in this trial but you may not consider evidence that has been stricken,” writes Judge Froeberg.
The judge may have faith in ordinary citizens to recognize unreasonable force by officers of the law, but city leaders in Fullerton do not. Detractors of civilian police oversight, some members of the Fullerton City Council, and Fullerton Police Department Chief Danny Hughes himself consistently argued that ordinary citizens would not be able to understand the complexities of police work.
Those without law enforcement experience were deemed unfit to even review complaints against officers because they would only be able assess them from the point of view of a civilian. This argument completely devalued the idea that ordinary citizens would be able to recognize a reasonable community standard that should apply to actions taken by police officers, even if prospective members of a Police Commission were to be familiarized with such standards as preparation for a position on that body.
And yet, a Superior Court Judge has entrusted ordinary citizens with no training at all in matters of law enforcement with the responsibility to recognize whether or not unreasonable force was used in a case that could send two men to prison for years. What does Judge Froeberg know that city leaders in Fullerton do not?