Tuesday, January 7, 2014
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Attorneys painted dramatically different pictures Tuesday of a homeless man who died after a violent struggle with California police officers, with one side calling him a victim of police brutality and the other telling jurors he was an angry felon with a history of unprovoked outbursts that left him on the street.
Jurors were set to return Wednesday for a second day of closing arguments in the case against two former Fullerton police officers who are charged in the July 2011 death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, who died after a routine patrol call escalated into a confrontation that was caught on surveillance video.
Former Officer Manuel Ramos, 39, has pleaded not guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter. Former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli has pleaded not guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive use of force.
A third officer will be tried separately; three others were not charged.
The case marks the first time in the history of conservative Orange County that a police officer has been charged with murder for actions taken while on duty. It is so high-profile that four-term District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is trying the case himself.
The 33-minute surveillance video that captured the struggle is at the heart of the monthlong trial. The video shows officers — at first two, and then six — kneeing, pummeling and repeatedly stunning Thomas with an electric gun as he cries out for his father nearly 30 times, apologizes and begs for air.
Thomas never regained consciousness and died five days later, on July 10, 2011, after doctors removed his life support.
His death led to the recall of three Fullerton City Council members and the departure of the police chief. Dozens of people have attended the trial each day wearing yellow ribbons and buttons bearing Thomas' image. Thomas' father has said his son had schizophrenia.
Rackauckas repeatedly replayed clips from the black-and-white surveillance video Tuesday, saying it provided clear-cut evidence that the two officers were responsible for the death of Thomas.
Friends and family members of Thomas sobbed as the video played on a large screen. One woman dashed out of the courtroom, her hand over her mouth.
"As you watch, you realize that what you're watching and hearing is a person dying at the hands of the police," Rackauckas said. "You're watching a homicide."
Ramos' defense attorney, John Barnett, countered in his closing argument that Thomas was a violent, unpredictable man who was to blame for his treatment by the officers because he didn't follow a lawful order despite repeated instructions and was combative.
"This case is not about a homeless, helpless, harmless mentally ill guy," he told jurors. "What these officers were dealing with on July 5 was a dangerous guy, a very dangerous guy."
Barnett reminded the jury that Thomas' mother had taken out a restraining order against him after he choked her during a fight. He also attacked his grandfather with a fireplace poker in 1995 — an attack that left Thomas a convicted felon. Both were called as hostile witnesses by the defense.
"This case isn't about a bully cop who was just trying to beat down a homeless guy," Barnett said. "It's about a police officer who, for 10 years, protected his community and did everything he could do to keep his community safe, including the homeless people."
The confrontation began with a routine call about a disheveled man jiggling the door handles of cars in a transit center parking lot.
The video begins shortly after Ramos pulls up, and he can be heard trying to get Thomas to give his name and sit on the curb with his hands on his knees while another officer searches his backpack. Thomas was shirtless and had a huge, bushy beard and baggy pants.
When Thomas didn't comply, Ramos put on a pair of Latex gloves, made two fists and told Thomas, "Now you see my fists? They're getting ready to (expletive) you up."
Thomas stood up and started to run but was overtaken by the officers, who called for backup as the struggle with Thomas grew.
Cicinelli, who arrived shortly after the incident began, struck Thomas eight times in the face and head with a stun gun and stunned him repeatedly, according to prosecutors. The blows left Thomas with a broken nose, shattered bones under his left eye and in his sinuses and hemorrhaging in his eye, Rackauckas said.
"Look at this picture. Does anybody have any question that this caused serious damage to Kelly Thomas' face? There can't be any question," he told jurors, showing a photo of blood-covered stun gun and then an image of Thomas' bloodied face. "There's blood all over it."
Cicinelli's attorney was to deliver his closing argument Wednesday.
Ramos had seven previous encounters with Thomas, who had also been written up for trespassing, urinating in a fountain, punching someone in the face, throwing large rocks and threatening the owner of a fruit stand with a metal pipe.
Rackauckas told jurors that Ramos was fed up with dealing with Thomas and lost his temper. He signaled his intent to harm Thomas when he put on the gloves and made fists without saying he was going to arrest Thomas — a critical turning point in the encounter.
"Can you imagine that? Can you imagine having a police officer saying something like that when you're sitting there?" he asked the jury, adding that Thomas reacted in self-defense. "What does that mean? That means, 'I'm going to beat you up severely. There's going to be injuries here.'"
Barnett, Ramos' attorney, said that his client was making a legal, conditional threat to get compliance after Thomas got agitated and didn't follow orders.
"You can see where he's pointing and his hands aren't there," he said. "He's got to submit, and he didn't."
Blood tests also showed no alcohol or drugs in Thomas' system on the day of the struggle.