On July 5, 2011, one day after America celebrated its 235th year of independence as a nation, police officers at the Fullerton Transportation Center in Orange County, California viciously beat a 37-year-old man named Kelly Thomas. At one point in the 35-minute surveillance tape that captured the entire horrifying encounter, Thomas can be heard pleading for his father, a retired law enforcement officer, to help him and saying, “I’m sorry.”
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Five days later, Thomas died after being removed from life support, his once handsome face a swollen mass of black and purple bruises. In 2012, two of the six officers involved in the beating, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cucinelli, were charged with Thomas’s death. And on January 13, 2014, a jury acquitted both Ramos and Cucinelli of all charges, leading to angry protests by mental health advocates and others in Fullerton and beyond.
While some of the facts of the case remain in dispute, no one disputes that Kelly Thomas suffered from schizophrenia, a serious mental illness that affects more than three million people in the United States. This brain disease is also disproportionately represented in the homeless population, with as many as one in three chronically homeless people suffering from serious mental illness including schizophrenia. Kelly Thomas — a beloved son and brother —was one of these people. See Long’s recent Time magazine op-ed: “A different ending to my ‘Adam Lanza’ Story.”
As the jury in this case demonstrated, with mental illness, the line that separates victims from perpetrators is seldom a bright one. Like many people with serious mental illness, Thomas had a long history with law enforcement. In the past, Kelly Thomas had been charged with criminal behavior; according to the Orange County Register, Thomas was listed in 92 police reports, beginning in 1990 when he was just 16 years old. But on the day he was beaten, it seems clear from the video evidence that he was the victim and the police officers were the perpetrators.
Consider the case of another Kelli. On September 3, 2013, Kelli Stapleton, a stay-at-home mother of three children, drove her 14-year-old daughter Issy into the remote Michigan woods and tried to end both of their lives. Issy Stapleton has autism and a history of violence against her mother; Kelli had suffered two concussions and other injuries at her daughter’s hands. One video shows Issy attacking caregivers at the residential facility where the Stapletons sent their daughter to learn how to control her aggression.
“I have to admit that I’m suffering from a severe case of battle fatigue,” Stapleton wrote in her final blog post at The Status Woe, following a heartbreaking meeting with school district officials that apparently triggered her near-fatal decision. Fortunately, both Kelli and Issy survived the murder-suicide attempt, but now Kelli sits in a jail cell, charged with attempted murder. She may never see her children again.
Both Kelly Thomas and Kelli Stapleton were matches that lit media firestorms, pitting police against citizens, peer advocates against parent advocates, parents against children. Both of these tragedies, highlight the moral complexities of dealing with mental illness. Did Officer Cucinelli act morally when he battered Kelly Thomas’s head repeatedly with a taser? Few people would agree that he did. Did Kelli Stapleton act morally when she decided to take her daughter’s life? Again, few people would say that murdering one’s child is moral.
But the truth with mental illness is that morality is never black and white because the paradigm of choice and consequence does not apply. Even the language we use to describe these “crimes” is confused and confusing. What both fascinates and repulses me, as a mother of a child with serious mental illness, is the remarkably similar rhetoric both victims and perpetrators use to tell their side of the story, invoking Nazism and hate crimes, of all things.
In the Kelly Thomas case, the two officers cited their training as their defense for murder — and the jury apparently bought that argument. Officer Ramos’s defense attorney actually said, “These peace officers were doing their jobs… they did what they were trained to do.” To many mental health advocates, this statement was a bit too close to Nuremburg for comfort.
In the Kelli Stapleton case, disability advocates also made Nazi comparisons, suggesting that the Michigan mom’s attempt to use carbon monoxide poisoning to kill herself and her daughter echoed the gas chambers. One blog commenter wrote, “She [Kelli] lured her [Issy] with s’mores and drugged her and gassed her like an unwanted stray dog.”
Autism advocate Ari Ne’eman of the Autism Self Advocacy Network wrote in a press release, “Kelli Stapleton tried to murder her daughter. We do not accept any excuses for the murders of nondisabled children; disabled children deserve this same basic social protection. When someone tries to kill us, the crime is not that we had the audacity to be disabled — it is that we were murdered by the people we trusted and relied on most.”
Another autism advocate, Zachary Lassiter, started an online petition to have Kelli Stapleton charged with a hate crime, collecting a mere 337 signatures. Similarly, in a call for justice for Kelly Thomas, one blogger urged the federal government to get involved: “There are no disposable people. Kelly Thomas was a human being. He had the right to life… Kelly Thomas’s murder was a HATE CRIME perpetuated because he was mentally ill and homeless.”
While autism advocates focus on Issy and castigate her mother, they conveniently fail to mention that children with autism have also killed their parents, as the tragic story of Kent State Professor Trudy Stuernagel and her son Sky illustrates. Before her death at her son’s hands, Trudy wrote a letter that has eerie resonance for many parents of children with mental illness, myself included: “If this letter has been opened and is being read, it is because I have been seriously injured or killed by my son, Sky Walker. I love Sky with my whole heart and soul and do not believe he has intentionally injured me. I have tried my best to get help for him and to end the pattern of violence that has developed in this home. I believe my best has not been good enough… We have all failed Sky.”
Trudy’s story echoes that of another single mother who was killed by a son with mental illness. Like Trudy, like Kelli, like me, Nancy Lanza felt isolated and afraid. She left her 20-year-old son Adam alone while she took a three-day vacation just before her death, a decision that added to the piles of blame shoveled on her after the Sandy Hook shootings.
In fact, a 1994 Department of Justice Report found that 25 percent of all children who killed their parents had a history of untreated mental illness. I have not found anything more recent to contradict this finding.
As for Kelly Thomas, what of the “training” defense the officers who took his life invoked? In fact, law enforcement officers must deal with the very real threat of violence from people with mental illness every single day. D.J. Jaffe of MentalIllnessPolicy.org has tracked 115 cases of law enforcement officers who were killed by people with untreated serious mental illness. Former New York State Police Commissioner Michael Biasotti surveyed law enforcement officers across the nation and found that they reported spending nearly 75 percent of their time on calls related to mental illness. Most reported that this element of policing had either increased or substantially increased over their careers.
So who is to blame for Kelly Thomas’ death? Who is to blame for Issy Stapleton’s fate? With deeply personal, psychological and historical ambiguities on all sides of these two tragedies, it’s well past time to move beyond blaming the victims and to put our broken system on trial for failing everyone — police officers, people with serious mental illness, parents, children and society. In the words of Trudy Stuernagel, Sky’s mother, we have all failed Kelly. And we have all failed Kelli.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.