A three-judge appeals court panel Monday affirmed the felony assault conviction of a veteran Los Angeles policewoman who kicked and shoved a handcuffed female arrestee who died shortly afterward.
Mary O’Callaghan, 51, was sentenced on July 23, 2015, to a maximum of three years behind bars, with 16 months to be served in county jail and the last 20 months suspended.
O’Callaghan received credit for roughly three months time served and was released from jail on Jan. 24, 2016, about six months after her sentencing hearing, according to information posted on the Sheriff’s Department’s website.
The case against O’Callaghan stemmed from Alesia Thomas’ July 22, 2012, arrest in the 9100 block of South Broadway Avenue. Thomas, 35, who was high on cocaine, lost consciousness in the patrol car and was pronounced dead within 10 minutes after an ambulance left the scene, according to the appeals panel opinion.
O’Callaghan was criminally charged in October 2013 after an investigation by the LAPD.
Defense attorneys argued on appeal that her trial counsel should have excluded evidence of Thomas’s death, that there was insufficient evidence of excessive force and that the crime should have been treated as a misdemeanor.
The appeals panel found no merit to those arguments and affirmed the lower court ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta.
“The coroner fixed her cause of death as `acute cocaine intoxication with agitated behavior need(ing) restraint,’ but was unable to state definitively `how much her struggle with law enforcement officers by resisting arrest contributed to her demise,”‘ the appeals court wrote.
Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby 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.
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.
Immediately after O’Callaghan kicked Thomas, another officer whistled and pointed to a video camera inside the patrol car, according to court documents. O’Callaghan continued to kick Thomas in the groin as the officer tried to get her into the patrol car and close the door.
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.”
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.”
Arguing for probation at trial, O’Callaghan’s attorney noted that she served 13 years in the Marine Corps and was “meritoriously promoted” to sergeant before spending 18 years as a Los Angeles police officer.
The appeals panel said the evidence of Thomas’s medical distress was unlikely to have been excluded at trial regardless of arguments by counsel.
“It is especially relevant where, as here, Thomas’s appearance and statements — such as I can’t breathe,” and “I can’t move” — would have put a reasonable officer on the scene on notice that Thomas was suffering from some medical condition affecting her ability to pose a threat or to resist arrest, the court wrote.
The panel also found “substantial evidence” to support the jury’s finding of excessive force, including evidence that “other officers believed that defendant’s conduct went too far.”
The appeals panel ruled that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in denying probation and sentencing the assault as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
Defense attorneys argued on appeal that the lower court was biased, saw O’Callaghan as someone “who could do no right” and was swayed by “sympathy for Thomas’s family, and a desire to pander to the `rolling cameras,”‘ according to court documents.
“There is no evidence in the record to support any of these assertions,” the appeals panel wrote. “To the contrary, the transcript of the sentencing hearing reflects a trial court that carefully and judiciously weighed the pros and cons of a very difficult sentencing decision.”
The Los Angeles City Council paid $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Thomas’s family.
— City News Service