A veteran Los Angeles police officer was sentenced Thursday to the maximum of three years behind bars for kicking and shoving a handcuffed woman who later died, with a judge ruling that she will serve 16 months in county jail and the last 20 months of her term will be suspended.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta — who called the case “truly tragic” — gave Mary O’Callaghan credit for already serving more than three months in custody. At her own request, O’Callaghan was taken into custody June 5, immediately after jurors convicted her on a felony count of assault by a public officer.
In court today, the 50-year-old officer’s voice broke as she spoke to Sandra Thomas, the mother of 35-year-old Alesia Thomas.
“Mother to mother, I’m extremely sorry for the loss of your daughter,” O’Callaghan said after standing up and turning toward the victim’s mother. “I pray for her every day. I pray for her children.”
Sandra Thomas asked if she could give O’Callaghan a hug after the officer finished speaking.
“No, it cannot be done,” the judge said.
O’Callaghan — who has been relieved of duty while awaiting a Los Angeles Police Department Board of Rights hearing — is expected to lose her job as a result of the felony conviction, according to her attorney, Robert Rico.
Rico said despite the 16-month sentence, she will likely serve about another 4 1/2 months due to jail credits.
“As long as she stays out of trouble, which she’s done for 50 years, and successfully completes the next 4 1/2 months in county jail, she’ll be done,” Rico said.
The defense lawyer noted that the sentence was “excessively longer” than the prosecution’s call for probation and a 180-day jail term. He also said it was “obviously much longer than my request for probation and time served.”
“… I won’t say I was shocked. It surprised me and I wasn’t shocked because this case has been politicized since day one,” Rico told reporters outside court. “… I believe that what happened here today was the court gave the public what the public expected, and that is on paper the max, but when it comes down to it, she only has to serve another 4 1/2 months in county jail.”
Rico said he intends to file a motion once O’Callaghan is released to reduce her conviction to a misdemeanor and have it expunged from her record. He noted that she served 13 years in the Marine Corps and was “meritoriously promoted” to a sergeant in the field before spending 18 years as a Los Angeles police officer. The prosecution had opposed the count being reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor during the sentencing hearing.
Outside court, Sandra Thomas said she was “comfortable” with the sentence, but the victim’s grandmother, Ada Moses, said she thought “it should be longer.”
The case against O’Callaghan stemmed from Alesia Thomas’ arrest July 22, 2012, in the 9100 block of South Broadway Avenue.
Thomas, who lost consciousness in the patrol car, was pronounced dead at a hospital. Cocaine intoxication likely was a “major factor” in Thomas’ death, according to autopsy findings, though the coroner’s report listed the cause of death as undetermined.
O’Callaghan was not charged in connection with the woman’s death, said Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby, who is the assistant head deputy of the District Attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division. During his closing argument, the prosecutor told the 11-woman, one-man jury that O’Callaghan’s use of force was unreasonable given that the unarmed Thomas was being picked up for alleged child abandonment rather than a violent crime and posed little threat to officers.
By the time O’Callaghan arrived on the scene, two other officers had already handcuffed Thomas and placed her legs in a “hobble” that tied them together, Presby said.
The prosecutor said Thomas was “helpless in the back of that police car” and simply trying to sit up so she could breathe when O’Callaghan, frustrated in trying to retie the hobble, threatened to break Thomas’ arm, shoved her in the chest and throat and kicked her in her stomach and then her groin.
Thomas told officers her chest and legs hurt and she needed an ambulance, but “no matter what Ms. Thomas said, (O’Callaghan) refused to listen,” the prosecutor said.
O’Callaghan’s attorney countered that his client believed that “the force she used was reasonable and necessary based on the facts known to her at the time.”
In his closing argument, Rico said the real question for jurors was whether the force his client used was reasonable under the circumstances.
Rico said his client was called as backup to assist in getting the 6- foot-1-inch Thomas, who weighed 228 pounds, into the patrol car. He said the woman kicked the door of the patrol car and refused to get inside.
“It took three sets of handcuffs originally to handcuff her,” Rico said, telling jurors that she bent the metal hook of one set of handcuffs.
Thomas “was not cooperating from the second Officer O’Callaghan physically touched her,” Rico said, “struggling, resisting, combative at times, under the influence of cocaine.”
Rico acknowledged that “what happened to (Thomas) was tragic,” but told jurors that Thomas “would still be alive if she hadn’t ingested cocaine that caused her heart to stop pumping.”
O’Callaghan was criminally charged in October 2013 after an investigation by the LAPD.
“As I expressed at the time, I was very concerned about this incident when it was first brought to light,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said. “It was our investigation that ultimately led to the criminal charges against her and now a prison sentence. It should be clear to everyone that the LAPD and the criminal justice system will hold officers accountable for their actions when they operate outside the law.”
—City News Service
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