SANTA ANA (AP) — A 37-year-old California homeless man’s death after a violent confrontation with police drew attention largely because of surveillance video that captured Kelly Thomas screaming for his father and begging for air as officers piled on him, struck him with batons and stunned him with a Taser.
In the courtroom, however, much of legal drama in the monthlong trial of two of those former officers has centered on Thomas’ checkered past and his medical history as attorneys called dueling experts to help the jury decide if the officers’ conduct alone killed him.
Former Fullerton police Officer Manuel Ramos, 39, has pleaded not guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter. Former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 41, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
Closing arguments in the case begin Tuesday.
The decision to charge a police officer with murder for actions taken while on duty is extremely rare — and particularly so in conservative Orange County. It’s the first time prosecutors in the county have ever charged such a case, and its outcome is so critical that four-term District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has handled much of the trial himself.
Thomas’ 2011 death galvanized local activists, who dubbed themselves “Kelly’s Army” and led to the recall of three city council members and the departure of the Fullerton police chief.
Jurors have watched the 33-minute, grainy surveillance video repeatedly as they dissect the case. In it, Thomas can be heard screaming for his father nearly 30 times and cries out repeatedly that he can’t breathe as six policemen fight to restrain him. The video was also synced with audio from the officers’ body microphones.
The July 5 incident began with a routine call about a disheveled man jiggling the handles of parked cars in a Fullerton transit center.
Ramos himself had seven previous encounters with Thomas, who had also been written up for trespassing, urinating in a fountain, punching someone in the face, throwing large rocks and threatening the owner of a fruit stand with a metal pipe. Thomas’ father has said his son suffered from schizophrenia.
In the video, Ramos can be heard trying to get Thomas to give his name and sit on the curb with his hands on his knees while another officer searches his backpack. Thomas is shirtless and has a huge, bushy beard and baggy pants.
When Thomas doesn’t comply, Ramos puts on a pair of Latex gloves, makes two fists and tells Thomas, “Now you see my fists? They’re getting ready to (expletive) you up.”
Thomas stands up and starts to run but is overtaken by the officers, who call for backup as the struggle with Thomas grows.
Cicinelli, who arrived shortly after the incident began, struck Thomas eight times in the face and head with a stun gun and stunned him repeatedly, according to prosecutors.
Both sides called medical experts to help jurors determine if Ramos and Cicinelli’s conduct killed Thomas.
The coroner listed the cause of death as asphyxiation from the officers piling on his chest during the struggle.
Defense attorneys countered that Thomas suffered from a weakened heart from years of methamphetamine abuse and was a mentally unstable and violent man who had abused drugs and alcohol since 10th grade.
A forensic pathologist testified for the defense that the individual cells in Thomas’ heart had changed their size and shape because of the drug abuse and that his heart cells had microscopic scarring. Thomas’ heart also weighed 20 to 25 percent more than it should have for a man his age and size.
Those abnormalities could have produced an electrical arrhythmia that killed Thomas, Dr. Steven Karch told jurors Monday.
“What I saw were dead and dying heart cells,” he said.
Prosecutors countered with a doctor who testified that CT scans taken at the hospital showed Thomas’ heart was healthy and the normal size for a man his size and age. Blood tests measuring the acidity levels in his blood, however, indicated he had been deprived of oxygen, which caused his heart to slow dramatically, said Dr. Matthew Budoff, a cardiologist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
“There was no arrhythmia in Kelly Thomas. We know that,” Budoff said.
Some of the most gripping testimony came earlier in the trial, when the defense called Thomas’ mother and maternal grandfather as hostile witnesses. Both wore yellow ribbons in Thomas’ honor.
His 91-year-old grandfather, Walter Dieball, approached the witness stand in a wheelchair and recalled how his grandson suddenly struck him three times with a fireplace poker in 1995 after the two argued. He said he didn’t fear his grandson, however.
His mother, Cathy Thomas, fought back tears as she testified she had taken out a restraining order against her son three years ago after he choked her for several minutes during an argument. She added that she wished she had known more about schizophrenia and how to get him more help.
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