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Trial Starts for Officer Accused of Murdering Kelly Thomas

Officer Manuel Anthony Ramos is charged with murdering homeless Kelly Thomas at Fullerton Transportation Center.

Kelly Thomas in 2009 police mugshot. Photo/Fullerton PD
Kelly Thomas in 2009 police mugshot. Photo/Fullerton PD

By Paul Anderson, City News Service

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told jurors Monday that two ex-Fullerton police officers killed a "harmless" homeless man on July 25, 2011, but attorneys for the defendants said their clients did not cause the transient's death and did not violate the law as they tried to restrain him.

Fullerton police Officer Manuel Anthony Ramos is charged with second- degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and and former police Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force in the death of Kelly Thomas.

During his 45-minute opening statement, Rackauckas told the jury that Ramos and the 37-year-old Thomas knew each other from previous encounters.

"This was a routine encounter for both Kelly Thomas and Manuel Ramos," the county's top prosecutor said. "But within the space of 30 minutes, Kelly was lying in a pool of blood, unconscious and dying."

Rackauckas said that during the confrontation at the Fullerton Transportation Center, Cicinelli "pummeled" Thomas with the butt of a stun gun.

"Cpl. Cicinelli recklessly and repeatedly beat Kelly Thomas in the face and head with his Taser," Rackauckas said, adding the defendant also used his weight to pin Thomas down so he could not breathe.

"This is an important case," Rackauckas said. "In the decision you make in this case you'll be speaking as the voice and conscience of the community."

The prosecutor characterized Thomas as a "harmless" transient who was 5 feet 9 inches tall with a thin build.

Thomas was prone to sleeping in alleys and "his conversation seemed to go in and out" of lucidity, Rackauckas said.

"Life was clearly a daily struggle for Kelly Thomas," he added.

Ramos, a 10-year department veteran, was "well-nourished" and healthy as was Cicinelli, who had nine years experience on the Fullerton force, Rackauckas said.

"Defendant Ramos didn't like Kelly much, actually he didn't like him at all and their meetings were numerous and not pleasant," Rackauckas said.

On one encounter, Ramos, with a "bullying attitude," ordered Thomas to leave an alley, where he was sleeping, and wouldn't let the transient retrieve his shirt or other meager belongings, Rackauckas said.

Police went to the Fullerton Transportation Center the night of the beating in response to a 911 call from the nearby Slidebar nightclub that someone -- investigators later determined it was not Thomas -- was trying to break into cars outside the club.

Ramos and Officer Joe Wolfe -- who was indicted for involuntary manslaughter and excessive force and will be tried separately -- confronted Thomas at the transportation center while Wolfe went through a backpack Thomas had with him.

Wolfe found letters in the backpack addressed to an attorney, prompting him and Ramos to discuss arresting Thomas on suspicion of possession of stolen property. Investigators later determined the letters were not stolen.

After Wolfe and Ramos discussed arresting Thomas, Ramos' manner "went from casual to malicious."

Ramos "stood over him in this menacing manner," as he "puts on a show putting on white, latex gloves," Rackauckas said.

Then Ramos held up his fists to Thomas and threatened to "(expletive) you up."

The officers gave no indication they would arrest Thomas as his arm was grabbed, prompting Thomas to pull back and then run, Rackauckas said.

"Kelly was scared, overwhelmed with deep, abject fear," Rackauckas said.

As baton blows rained on Thomas, the transient repeatedly apologized and cried out for help from his father and God, Rackauckas said. Thomas also repeatedly said he could not breathe, the prosecutor added.

The stun-gun wielding Cicinelli and four other officers arrived minutes later, Rackauckas said.

"You can hear (Thomas) scream as the electricity (from the stun gun) surges through his body," Rackauckas said.

Then Cicinelli "made a very important choice" when he began using the butt of the stun gun to subdue Thomas, the prosecutor said.

"Cicinelli decides to use the Taser as an impact weapon on his face," Rackauckas said, the gun was "virtually unbreakable."

As the corporal "jumped on the dog pile," he raised up his arm and "repeatedly pummeled Kelly in the face without mercy," Rackauckas said, adding that, "In his own words he said he smashed his face to hell."

Thomas was pronounced dead five days later at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange. An autopsy showed that he died from a lack of oxygen to the brain because of the pressure on his chest and bleeding in his nose, Rackauckas said, adding there was no evidence of alcohol or drugs in Thomas' system at the time.

Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, told jurors that Thomas abused methamphetamine for years and that the drugs left him a "time bomb" who would periodically "explode" into violence.

Barnett said Thomas began abusing methamphetamine in the 10th grade and said the transient also struggled with alcoholism.

"This is a case about a man who made bad choices in his life," Barnett said. "This is not a case about a bully cop who targeted homeless men."

Barnett, wielding a fireplace poker for the jury, noted Thomas' conviction in 1995 for his "unprovoked" attack on his 73-year-old grandfather with a similar instrument.

"This was a spontaneous, psychotic episode our experts will tell you is consistent with someone who abused methamphetamine," Barnett said.

Thomas and Ramos had seven encounters before the beating, Barnett said. In one, Thomas was naked in a Starbucks bathroom "threatening" customers, Barnett said.

"It was another explosion of violence," Barnett said. "These time bombs would just keep going off and off."

On another occasion, security guards at a Kohl's store handcuffed Thomas, but Ramos explained he was homeless and "not all there" as the officer "made excuses" for Thomas so he could be released.

In each incident, Barnett said, Ramos would use "lawful threats" such as jailing or a citation to get Thomas to clear out of the area and avoid a physical struggle with officers.

The central piece of evidence in the trial is surveillance video of the beating that prosecutors have synced up with audio from the data recorders officers are required to carry with them.

Ron Thomas says his late son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Defense attorneys say there's no proof of the diagnosis.

Barnett and Cicinelli's attorney, Michael Schwartz, said officers requested a Code 3 -- meaning officers need help -- three times.

Schwartz said the evidence will show Thomas had an "enlarged heart" due to years of drug abuse and that he lapsed into cardiac arrest when he over- exerted himself. The blows and chest compression did not kill Thomas, Schwartz said.

"A tragedy? Yes," Schwartz said. "A crime? No... Sometimes tragedies happen in this world, but they're not always crimes. That's what happened in this case."

Schwartz disputed Rackauckas' claim that Cicinelli hammered Thomas several times with the butt of the stun gun.

When Cicinelli arrived at the struggle with Thomas he saw two officers tussling with the transient man.

"Folks, the evidence will show what Jay Cicinelli encountered that night was a violent, combative suspect who grabbed my client's weapon," Schwartz said.

Thomas was hardly a meek, helpless homeless man, Schwartz said, adding he weighed more than 200 pounds.

Cicinelli "followed his training" and tried to subdue Thomas with the stun gun, and when that failed he used the weapon to fire darts at the transient to shock him, but that also didn't work, Schwartz said.

Cicinelli was working to untangle the wires and "close the circuit" to stop Thomas' struggling, Schwartz said.

Thomas, who had his right hand free, tried to take the corporal's stun gun, Schwartz alleged.

That prompted Cicinelli to strike Thomas with two "short jabs" to the forehead "to get him to stop grabbing at his weapon, and it worked," Schwartz said.

The defense attorney also said paramedics will testify that Thomas was breathing and was considered "viable" as he was being put in an ambulance, and that he only "flat-lined" while en route to a hospital, Schwartz said.

"Kelly Thomas died of cardiac arrest from over-exertion of an already diseased heart," Schwartz said.    

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