LOS ANGELES â€” Murder charges against on-duty police officers â€” such as the one announced by Orange County prosecutors Wednesday in the Fullerton beating case â€” are rarely filed, and successful prosecutions in such cases are almost unheard of in California.
Legal experts said jurors who are naturally sympathetic toward law enforcement are not easily persuaded that an officer has committed the ultimate crime, even after seeing video of the death.
Ira Salzman, who has represented police officers, said defense attorneys in Orange County will have the added benefit of jurors who look favorably toward law enforcement and can make a forceful argument that police had the legal right to use force against a non-complying suspect.
Investigators interviewed more than 150 witnesses, analyzed video and reviewed stacks of documents as part of an intensive 11-week investigation leading up to the decision to charge Officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder in the July 7 death of a mentally ill homeless man.
But to obtain a murder conviction, Orange County prosecutors will have to convince jurors that Ramos intended to kill Kelly Thomas or acted with a conscious disregard for life.
Over the last two decades, prosecutors from Los Angeles, Alameda and Riverside counties have tried a handful of similar murder cases with mixed results. Last year, a Los Angeles jury rejected a murder charge against a Bay Area transit officer who shot an unarmed man on a train station platform but found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Johannes Mehserle testified that the shooting was an accident when he mistakenly drew his pistol instead of a Taser. Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison and served about a year behind bars.
Previous murder cases against police officers have gone nowhere: In 1993, Ramosâ€™ attorney, John Barnett, successfully defended Los Angeles Police Department Officer Douglas J. Iversen on a murder charge in the shooting of an unarmed tow truck driver who was driving away from a southwest Los Angeles gas station. Two separate juries deadlocked on the charges before a judge dismissed the case.
Even when prosecutors are able to win a murder conviction, the outcome may not be to their liking:
In 1983, Los Angeles County Sheriffâ€™s Deputy Robert Armstrong was charged with shooting a pregnant woman and her fetus during an illegal raid.