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Prosecutors rest case in trial of Fullerton officers

Testimony is wrapped up in five and a half days. Lawyers for the two officers accused of beating and killing Kelly Thomas are expected to begin calling witnesses Thursday.

December 11, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel and Adolfo Flores

After just five and a half days of testimony, Orange County prosecutors on Wednesday rested their case in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers accused of beating and killing a mentally ill homeless man.

The centerpiece of the prosecution's case was a surveillance video synced with audio of the violent encounter between Kelly Thomas, who often slept on the streets of Fullerton, and police on the night of July 5, 2011. In it, officers are seen repeatedly wielding batons and using a Taser on Thomas, who is heard screaming for his father and saying, "I can't breathe."

Prosecutors played the video in its entirety on the first day of testimony. Since then, prosecutors and defense attorneys have played it again and again, often in slow-motion, split-second increments, and have asked witnesses to comment on it.

Thomas was comatose after the altercation and died at a hospital five days later.

During opening statements, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who is trying the case along with two assistant district attorneys, held a baton in both hands to illustrate the confrontation to jurors.

Former officer Manuel Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Their attorneys have argued that it was Thomas who became violent during the confrontation.

The announcement that prosecutors would call no further witnesses was a surprise to some observers who had been expecting the trial to last several weeks.

"It seems like they have finished very early," said Ron Thomas, who soon after his son's death began urging prosecutors to charge the officers involved in the confrontation.

Rackauckas, though, said he anticipated the prosecution's case would take as long as it did.

To make their case, prosecutors called a surgeon who treated Thomas when he arrived at the hospital, paramedics who treated him at the scene, a coroner's pathologist and a use-of-force expert, among others.

They also played audio tape of Ramos' previous encounters with Thomas to demonstrate that the officer was familiar with Thomas and knew he was mentally ill long before the fatal confrontation. And they played audio from the recording device of an officer who responded to the scene, in which Cicinelli said he hit Thomas 20 times in the face with his stun gun.

Cicinelli's attorney Michael Schwartz disputed the statement outside of court, saying that his client's words were driven by anxiety, stress and disbelief following the altercation.

One of the most heated moments in the prosecutions' case came during the testimony of Dr. Aruna Singhania, an Orange County coroner's pathologist who testified that the officers caused Thomas' death by putting pressure on his chest during the fight. The pressure led to a lack of oxygen and, ultimately, irreversible brain damage, she said.

Ramos' attorney John Barnett accused her of changing her testimony from a preliminary hearing last year in which she said there was a single moment of compression in the beating which caused Thomas' death.

During a back-and-forth that lasted several minutes, Singhania told Barnett he misled her during the preliminary hearing and that, rather than a single instance of compression, it was repeated moments of pressure over time that caused Thomas to die.

The defense has argued that Thomas died because he had a bad heart due to prior drug use.

Prosecutors also called John A. Wilson, a former FBI agent and use-of-force expert, who testified that the officers' actions were excessive.

Defense attorneys are expected to begin calling witnesses Thursday morning.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

adolfo.flores@latimes.com

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