Jurors found two former Fullerton police officers accused in the 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man, not guilty on all charges on Monday.
File photos of Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli in court.
Former Officer Manuel Ramos and ex-Corporal Jay Cicinelli were accused of causing the death of Thomas in a violent struggle in the Orange County college town, prompting angry protests and closely watched criminal proceedings.
A coroner’s report stated Thomas died of asphyxia due to chest compression and injuries to his head and chest during the struggle on July 5, 2011, at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
The prosecution had argued that officers’ beating of Thomas was unwarranted and that Thomas was not a threat to police.
Defense attorneys responded that Thomas struggled back against officers – who called for backup after striking him repeatedly – and that he succumbed to heart problems due in part to drug use.
Opening statements began in the Santa Ana courtroom on Dec. 2, 2013, and the jury was handed the case on Thursday, Jan. 9.
The verdict was read back just before 4 p.m. with Cicinelli and Ramos guilty on all counts.
Ramos faced the more serious charge of second-degree murder, along with involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
File photo of Kelly Thomas.
Ramos could have faced up to 15 years in prison; Cicinelli faced four years.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas made the unusual choice to argue the case himself instead of assigning a deputy prosecutor the task. It was his first jury trial since 1999.
At the center of the trial was a 30-minute black-and-white surveillance video – and audio from officers’ recording devices – that showed a routine patrol stop escalate into a brutally violent confrontation.
An employee of a nearby bar had called police, saying a man was in the parking lot trying to break into cars.
Ramos responded and was the first to make contact with Thomas. His attorney, John Barnett, argued that Ramos had tried to use verbal threats against Thomas to avoid a physical confrontation and had used his police training correctly.
Surveillance video captured the violent confrontation between police and Kelly Thomas on July 5, 2011.
“See my fists? They’re getting ready to [expletive] you up,” Ramos can be heard saying to Thomas in the recording. Ramos made a show of putting on rubber gloves.
Cicinelli arrived when Ramos and another officer were already struggling with Thomas after swinging their batons at him. Cicinelli joined in the fray, pulling out his Taser to stun Thomas, and then bashing him in the face with the butt of the stun gun.
During the fight, Thomas cried out repeatedly for his father, saying he could not breathe.
“Dad, they are killing me,” were among his last words, the recording shows.
The struggle left a pool of blood on the ground after paramedics responded, taking Thomas to a hospital.
Thomas was removed from life support and died five days after the encounter. Seen with abloodied and battered face in photos from the hospital, Thomas had never regained consciousness.
A chronically homeless man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Thomas was seen regularly in the area where he was beaten. He had had multiple previous encounters with Ramos that were detailed by attorneys.
Defense attorneys also described Thomas’ violent encounters with family members and drug use that began when he was a teenager.
There was no evidence of blood or alcohol in Thomas’ body at the time of his death, a coroner’s report stated.
A third officer, Joseph Wolfe, was indicted in September 2012 on one count each of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. He faces a separate trial.