Kelly Thomas: Ex-officers’ trial in death starts today

02 Dec
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Former Fullerton police officers Jay Cicinelli, left, and Manuel Ramos pleaded not guilty July 13, 2012, in relation to the beating that led to the death of transient Kelly Thomas in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana.

A hospital bed image of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man, his face unrecognizable under the bruises, gauze and a tube running from his mouth through his ruffled hair and beard.

A grainy, 33-minute surveillance video of his July 5, 2011, encounter with Fullerton police officers Manuel Anthony Ramos and Jay Patrick Cicinelli that resulted in fatal injuries.

Orange County’s four-time elected district attorney returning to the courtroom as the lead prosecutor, dueling against perhaps the most well-known defense attorney in O.C.

The trial judge – second in seniority in O.C. – presiding over his last major case before he retires in 2014.

Unprecedented demand for press seating in the 120-seat, 10th-floor courtroom.

This case has all that.

After more than two years of hearings, after Fullerton City Council members were recalled, after the Police Department was roiled by months of protests, the much-anticipated trial of two ex-Fullerton officers starts Monday.

At stake will be Ramos and Cicinelli’s freedom.

The two former colleagues are charged with fatally beating Thomas, 37, who was schizophrenic, during an encounter captured on a surveillance video. Thomas died five days later when he was removed from life support.

Ramos, 39, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. He is the first uniformed officer in Orange County history to be charged with murder for an on-duty incident.

Cicinelli, 41, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault and battery under color of authority.

Prosecuting and defense attorneys have listed 114 potential witnesses, including 27 from the Fullerton Police Department. The trial before Superior Court Judge William Froeberg could take about six weeks.

Froeberg has reserved 22 seats for print, radio and television journalists, including CNN, Fox and Japan’s Fuji TV, and 25 seats each for family members and supporters of Thomas and family members and supporters of Ramos and Cicinelli. The rest of the estimated 120 seats in the Santa Ana courtroom will be available to the public.

Rackauckas in court

The prosecution is led by Tony Rackauckas, Orange County’s district attorney since 1999, the first time in more than a dozen years that he’s personally handled a trial in the courtroom. Rackauckas, a former Superior Court judge, was a top homicide prosecutor in the 1970s and ’80s.

John Barnett, perhaps the county’s best-known defense attorney, is representing Ramos. Barnett has been trying murder cases since the 1970s and won an acquittal in Los Angeles Superior Court for one of the officers charged in the Rodney King beating case, a verdict that set off riots in Los Angeles that resulted in more than 50 deaths.

Michael Schwartz, who specializes in defending police officers, is representing Cicinelli.

The Thomas trial – like the King trial – will likely hinge on how the eight-woman, four-man jury interprets the surveillance video.

Rackauckas contends the video – from a police camera on a pole at the parking lot – shows the unlawful beating of Thomas.

Barnett and Schwartz argue that the video demonstrates the officers were doing their jobs and that Thomas caused the routine encounter to escalate by failing to abide by lawful orders.

The video shows Ramos and third ex-officer Joseph Wolfe – who is charged in a separate grand jury indictment — questioning Thomas after a call came in about a homeless man pulling the doors on locked cars. The questioning lasted about 16 minutes before the encounter turned violent when Wolfe and Ramos tackled the shirtless Thomas after he – among other things – refused to identify himself.

Four other officers, including Cicinelli, arrived and joined in, prosecutors said. Thomas is heard on the videotape screaming for help, yelling that he couldn’t breathe and calling out for his father.

Dissecting the video

Experts say video evidence can be tricky and breaking it down frame by frame – which both sides are likely to do – could yield differing interpretations.

“Each side is going to present a version of what they believe the video portrays,” said Ron Martinelli, a forensic criminologist and police-practices expert based in Temecula.

“The prosecution is going to slow it down and show (certain things) frame by frame,” Martinelli said. “The defense is going to do it all in real time (to say) this was a rapidly evolving situation.”

A video presents problems for the defense, but whether it leads to a conviction is uncertain, said David Sklansky, a professor and expert on criminal law at UC Berkeley.

“Videos can often provide much more information about what happened at a confrontation than the memories of the people who survived and were at the confrontation,” Sklansky said. “There are cases where video is powerful evidence, on balance, for one side or the other.



If you are charged with a crime, contact an experienced Orange County Bail Bondsman to assist you in any bail situation.


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