Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Lawyers spar on police charges in homeless death

SANTA ANA, Calif. — A police officer turned a routine encounter during a burglary investigation into a brutal beating death when he snapped on latex gloves, made a fist and threatened to take on a homeless man, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

From left, Fullerton police officer Jay Cicinelli listens to testimony while his defense attorney, Michael D. Schwartz, takes notes. Cicinelli and another officer are charged with killing a homeless man.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Officer Manuel Ramos bullied a shirtless, 37-year-old Kelly Thomas at a Fullerton transit hub with his menacing remarks and aggressive stance — actions that would have led anyone to fear they were about to get beaten by police.

“Any person, any creature on this earth would have fear at that point,” Rackauckas told the court during a preliminary hearing to determine whether sufficient evidence exists to order Ramos and another officer to stand trial on charges of killing Thomas.

“You’re going to fight or flee because this is an imminent threat of a serious beating by a police officer who is there with a baton and a gun and other police officers…. This is going to be a very bad deal,” the prosecutor said.

Defense attorneys countered that police — who are authorized and trained to use force when necessary — viewed the incident as an encounter with a man who refused to give his name and continued to resist arrest even as multiple officers rushed to assist.

Ramos, a 10-year-veteran, is facing charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force in the July 5 incident.

Both officers have pleaded not guilty.

The three-day hearing was marked by repeated showing of clips from surveillance video and audio recordings of the confrontation. The footage includes scenes of officers pummeling and pinning down Thomas as he screams that he can’t breathe and moans for his father until he goes silent and is taken away by medics, leaving behind a pool of blood.

John Barnett, Ramos’ attorney, said the video — which was introduced by the prosecution — shows that his client made a conditional threat during his conversation with Thomas, stating he wanted the man to start listening and following police orders, such as sitting with his legs stretched out and providing his name to officers dispatched to the transit hub to investigate a report of a homeless person trying car doors.

“All that Kelly Thomas had to do was simply comply,” Barnett said. “Officer Ramos just lifts him up, he’s going to arrest him. … Not only can he do it, he must do it. He is bound to do it.”

“Officer Ramos didn’t do anything that should or could kill Kelly Thomas,” Barnett said, pointing out that his client is often seen on the video at the man’s feet.

Prosecutors have argued that Ramos punched Thomas in the ribs, tackled him and lay on him to hold him down while Cicinelli — who arrived later on the scene — used a Taser four times on Thomas as he hollered in pain, then hit him in the face eight times with the Taser.

Thomas lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital. He was taken off life support and died five days later.

Coroner’s findings questioned

The coroner’s office found that Thomas died from compression of his chest that made it difficult for him to breathe and deprived his brain of oxygen, and facial injuries stemming from his confrontation with law enforcement.

On Wednesday, Cicinelli’s attorney Michael Schwartz challenged those findings, noting that testimony by a paramedic who treated Thomas at the scene indicates that Thomas was breathing, although with difficulty, during the confrontation.

Schwartz also defended his client’s use of the Taser on Thomas, who was still struggling and resisting officers’ efforts to handcuff him, and said Cicinelli only swung the Taser at Thomas’ hand when the man made an effort to grab the weapon.

“To call that a crime is to effectively handcuff our police officers out in the field from dealing with any combative suspect,” Schwartz said.

The hearing in a Santa Ana courtroom was marked by lengthy testimony from medical experts and graphic photos of Thomas’ injuries, including multiple bruises and a bloodied eye, while he was lying on the autopsy table.

Attorneys repeatedly played portions of the grainy surveillance video, which was paired with audio from digital recorders worn by some of the officers who were present and which brought some of Thomas’ supporters to tears and prompted them to leave the courtroom.

The incident last July prompted an ongoing FBI investigation to determine if Thomas’ civil rights were violated, an internal probe by the city, protests by residents and an effort to recall three Fullerton councilmembers that is slated for next month’s ballot.