SANTA ANA – In the span of 30 minutes, Kelly Thomas went from a homeless man “hanging out in his usual spots” on the streets of Fullerton to a victim of unrestrained police violence, lying in a pool of blood in a downtown parking lot, unconscious and dying, Orange County’s district attorney told a jury Monday.
Former officer Manuel Ramos escalated what had been the latest in a string of routine encounters with the mentally ill Thomas into the deadly 2011 confrontation with a “major departure” from proper police training, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in his opening statement at Ramos’ murder trial.
Ramos – among other actions – issued a threat to use his fists “to f— you up,” Rackauckas said.
“It is an important case,” Rackauckas told the jury. “And by the decisions that you make in this case, you’ll be speaking as the voice and conscience of the community.”
But defense attorney John Barnett told the jury that Ramos “showed restraint, tremendous restraint” when he used his streetwise words to get Thomas to “comply with his unquestionably lawful order.”
What Ramos could not predict, Barnett said, was Thomas’ potential for “spontaneous psychotic episodes” and “explosions of violence” caused by years of drug use and alcoholism. Thomas, Barnett said, was no stranger to aggressive encounters with others, including one in which he used a fireplace poker to attack his grandfather.
And the night of July 5, 2011, Barnett said, was one of those explosions. Thomas was taken down and pummeled by first two, then three, and then six Fullerton police officers after he was approached in response to a dispatch call about a homeless man trying the doors of parked cars. Thomas was taken by ambulance unconscious and bleeding to the hospital, where he died five days later after life support was terminated.
CAPTURED ON VIDEO
The confrontation at the Fullerton Transportation Center was captured by a police surveillance video camera and digital audio recorders on the officers’ uniforms. The video will be the key piece of evidence introduced during what is expected to be a six-week jury trial before Superior Court Judge William Froeberg.
Rackauckas has charged Ramos, 39, with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, contending that the 10-year veteran officer set in motion an unprovoked beating in the parking lot of the transportation center and then did nothing to prevent other officers from piling on. Ramos is the first person in Orange County history to be charged with murder while on duty as a uniformed police officer.
Ramos is standing trial with former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 41, charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault under color of authority for his actions in joining the melee with a Taser, first to try to incapacitate the homeless man and then as a blunt instrument.
Froeberg’s large courtroom on the 10th floor of the county courthouse was packed. More than 120 spectators, including family members and friends of the homeless man and the officers, plus at least two dozen members of the media, filled seats.
Rackauckas, the four-term district attorney, is handling the prosecution personally, with assistance from two top assistants. He is going up against Barnett, perhaps the county’s best-known lawyer, who specializes in defending officers in trouble.
Rackauckas said Thomas pleaded with officers during the encounter about not being able to breathe and repeatedly cried out for help.
“At no time during the entire ordeal did Ramos say to any other officers that maybe Kelly had had enough,” Rackauckas said. “So while Kelly was being hogtied, Ramos remarked there’s f—— blood everywhere.”
“His last words were ‘Dad, they’re killing me dad, they’re killing me, Daddy, Daddy,’ ” the prosecutor told jurors.
Then, Thomas barely pushed out the words “Daddy, Daddy,” Rackauckas said.
Cicinelli, who responded with five officers, zapped Thomas with his stun gun and then used it as a weapon to smash Thomas’ face, Rackauckas said.
The officers unlawfully killed a human being that night, Rackauckas said. “The evidence will make it abundantly clear that the conduct of these two officers went far from what is acceptable in any free society,” he said.
DEFENSE: ‘CHOICES’ LED TO DEATH
When it was his turn, Barnett told the jury, “This case is not about a homeless, harmless, mentally ill guy. This is about a guy who made choices, bad choices, that led to his death.”
Thomas, he said, started using methamphetamine in the 10th grade, and it led him to a life on the streets, wreaking violence on strangers, on his grandfather and on his mother, who once obtained a restraining order against him.
“These are Kelly Thomas’ victims, and these are the people who will show you who the real Kelly Thomas is … who confronted the police officers on July 5,” Barnett said.
Ramos “is not some bully cop,” Barnett said “It’s just exactly the opposite. (The evidence) will show you that not only did he not murder Kelly Thomas, that he did not even kill Kelly Thomas.”
Cicinelli’s attorney, Michael Schwartz, told the jury in his opening statement that police officers committed no crime and that Cicinelli was following police procedures when he tried to restrain a “combative, uncontrolled suspect who grabbed (his) weapon” during the encounter.
Thomas, Schwartz said, was “was not small, he was not meek.”
Schwartz told the jury that a county pathologist changed the cause of death to asphyxiation brought on by chest compressions and facial injuries after prosecutors showed her the video recording of the incident.
But a defense expert will testify, Schwartz said, that Thomas died from a heart attack due to an enlarged heart caused by years of methamphetamine use.
“Kelly Thomas died of cardiac arrest from over-exerting an already diseased heart,” Schwartz said. “He was in a struggle and fight that lasted five full minutes or more and his heart couldn’t take it.
“Sometimes, tragedies happen in this world,” Schwartz said. “They’re not always crimes. This case is a perfect example.”
By LARRY WELBORN and VIK JOLLY / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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