A tragic police abuse death case which occurred In the college town of Fullerton, California caused a serious deja vu moment for me. In the Fullerton case, a young mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas, was sitting on a bus bench when he was approached by police. They were investigating a report of some cars being broken into in the area and they wanted to search his backpack. When Kelly asked what he had done wrong the police wouldn’t tell him so he ran. He was after all suffering from schizophrenia.
The officers, six in all, gave chase and subdued him with tasers, baton strikes, and general roughing up which included kicks and punches. As he was being beaten, Kelly cried out for his father. Kelly was beaten so badly he was taken to the hospital and later died of these injuries. When his father viewed the body, he assumed that his son had been beaten up by a local street gang. His initial thought was to call the Fullerton police and report the crime. Little did he know that Fullerton police officers were responsible.
The City of Fullerton has become defensive. They claim that this was an isolated incident and that its officers are trained to deal with mentally ill persons. However, either the training these officers received was deficient or they need to be retrained.
I encountered a similar case in 1995 which occurred in Jackson, Mississippi. Police were called to North State Street where they encountered a 19 year old who was naked and disoriented. The young man’s friends told police that the young man had ingested some drugs and was having a bad reaction. The officers, untrained on how to handle the situation, approached the man like he was any other suspect. They immediately reached out to grab him which escalated the situation. The officers began to struggle with the young man but because he was naked and sweating (it was July) they could not control him. One of the officers sprayed pepper spray which ended up getting on both officers.The other officer, a 300 pound behemoth, subdued the 160 pound young man by using a choke hold and laying the full weight of his body on him. The officer literally squashed the life out of a person who was, at most, committing a misdemeanor crime.
The young man’s family was determined to find justice. They contacted us through a mutual friend. After filing suit and conducting discovery, a trial was held in front of Federal District Court Judge William Barbour. After a week of testimony, a jury found the City of Jackson liable for failing to train its officers and awarded the family $2.1 million. I for one was extremely pleased but I will never forget the family’s reaction to the verdict: mixed emotions. They were elated that a jury had found the City responsible but realized at that point in time that money would not fill the void left in their lives. That was an important lesson for me as a trial attorney as well.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed the verdict in 2000 and the United States Supreme Court refused the City’s appeal that same year. It was my first civil rights case and one case I will never forget. I continue to stay in contact with the family. I trust that Kelly Thomas’ family will seek, and obtain, justice for their son’s death.
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Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.