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Two Fullerton officers to stand trial in death of Kelly Thomas

Judge orders the trial for Officer Manuel Ramos, charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, accused of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.

May 10, 2012|By Richard Winton and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Ron Thomas, right, whose son Kelly Thomas died after being beaten by Fullerton police, and his attorney Garo Mardirossian talk to the media in Santa Ana during a break in the preliminary hearing for two officers charged in the homeless man's death.
Ron Thomas, right, whose son Kelly Thomas died after being beaten by Fullerton… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Following an emotionally charged hearing, an Orange County judge ruled that two Fullerton police officers will stand trial for the death of a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten in a violent confrontation last summer.

The ruling means that Manuel Ramos, 38, could be the first police officer in modern Orange County history to be tried for murder for on-duty actions .

Ramos is charged withsecond-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 40, will be tried on charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.

Thomas' death, which came five days after his encounter with six officers at a Fullerton bus depot last July, has rocked the north Orange County city, leading to a mass protest movement, the departure of a police chief and an upcoming recall election against three council members.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who took the unusual step of personally arguing the prosecution's side at the three-day preliminary hearing, said it was hard to prosecute police officers, but he believed that it was necessary in the Thomas case.

"It's a very bad day in Orange County when we have to charge two police officers with these kinds of terrible crimes," he told Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm.

The district attorney also said he had not ruled out filing charges against additional officers, something the Thomas family and supporters have called for.

Video and audio recordings of the incident were the centerpiece of the prosecution's case and provided a graphic backdrop to the hearing. It was the first time the surveillance video — paired with audio from a recording device worn by one of the officers — was shown.

The video shows Thomas on the ground, screaming, as officers pile on top of him and hit him with fists, a baton and finally the butt of a stun gun.

The murder charge against Ramos hinges not on his use of physical force, but on his actions before the confrontation turned violent.

The video showed Ramos growing visibly frustrated as a shirtless Thomas, sitting on a curb while detained, failed to follow commands to put his legs out in front of him and his hands on his knees.

At one point, Ramos put on a pair of gloves and told Thomas, "See these fists? They're getting ready to f— you up, if you don't f— start listening."

In closing arguments Wednesday, Rackauckas said Ramos' actions "turned a routine encounter into a brutal beating death."

Rackauckas said Ramos' threat goaded Thomas, who had been "a bit of a jerk" but was not struggling with officers at that point, into a fight-or-flight reaction.

Cicinelli, the prosecutor said, "assisted in the killing" by smashing Thomas' face with a stun gun and putting his weight on Thomas. A coroner's pathologist testified Thomas died because chest compression deprived his brain of oxygen and because blood from his facial wounds poured into his lungs.

During the hearing, Rackauckas produced a Taser, smacking it on the podium several times to demonstrate its weight. At another point, he told the court: "You are seeing blood coming off the face of Kelly Thomas splashing up in the air."

Ramos' defense attorney, John Barnett, argued that Thomas was uncooperative and that there was no evidence the officers knew he was mentally ill.

Barnett said the prosecution deliberately skipped over Ramos saying, "if you don't f— start listening" in the infamous "getting ready to f— you up" statement, which Barnett said was meant only as a conditional threat. Barnett said his client was using street language and "Mr. Rackauckas has turned that into murder."

Michael Schwartz, Cicinelli's attorney, said his client acted as any reasonable officer would while trying to subdue a combative subject. Cicinelli, he said, saw two officers struggling with Thomas when he arrived and did not "pile on" but instead tried to pull them apart. Thomas grabbed the officer's Taser hand and Cicinelli struggled to free it, Schwartz said.

The defense attorneys also questioned whether it was the medics who treated Thomas, not the officers, who might have inflicted the fatal injuries while trying to insert a breathing tube.

Barnett said Ramos believes "he is innocent" and insisted that, despite the judge's decision, his client won't face a murder trial. Rackauckas said he is prepared for a dismissal motion and appeals from the defense.

If convicted, Ramos faces the possibility of life in prison, while Cicinelli faces a maximum four-year sentence.

Ira Salzman, a Pasadena-based attorney who has defended police officers, said he would have been surprised had the judge not held the officers to answer on all charges, since the burden of proof at a preliminary hearing is very low.

Salzman declined to speculate on what would happen at trial. But he and other legal experts said the basis for the murder charge against Ramos — hinging on inflammatory statements and the menacing way Ramos put on his gloves, rather than use of force — is unusual.

"In other cases, you typically have the officer using deadly force," Salzman said.

Thomas' family and supporters who packed the courtroom during the hearings claimed an incremental victory after the judge's ruling, but said they would not be satisfied until the officers are convicted.

"I'm overwhelmed. In this war we've been fighting this is a new battle," said Thomas' father, Ron. "But we got a victory today."

Times staff writer Angel Jennings contributed to this report.

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