Originally posted January 13, 2014 at 04:15 PM
Two former Fullerton police officers were acquitted today of all charges stemming from the death of transient Kelly Thomas, who died five days after his 2011 arrest at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
Gasps could be heard from the Santa Ana courtroom as the verdicts were read, clearing former Officer Manuel Ramos -- who had been charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter -- and ex-Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
Cicinelli, 39, hugged his attorney after the verdicts were read. Ramos could be seen with his face in his hands.
The charges stemmed from the 37-year-old Thomas' July 5, 2011, arrest following reports of someone breaking into cars at the bus depot.
The violent arrest, which ultimately involved six officers, was captured on video and audio tape, which were the centerpieces of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' case. Thomas, who wound up bruised, bloodied and hospitalized, never regained consciousness and was taken off life support five days later.
Defense attorneys contended during the trial that Thomas' death was the result of an enlarged heart caused by years of drug abuse.
Rackauckas, handling the case himself, urged jurors to use common sense, saying the officers went beyond police protocol during the arrest.
Jurors deliberated for about eight hours over the course of two days before announcing early this afternoon they had reached a verdict.
“Where do we really find justice any more in our justice system,” Thomas' father, Ron, asked rhetorically after the verdict.
He accused defense attorneys of lying throughout the trial about his son's drug use. He also said the verdict will send a message to police officers that they have the right to violently beat suspects.
“It has been proven right here today that they will get away with it,” he said. “They will get away with it.”
Rackauckas argued that Thomas was legally exercising his right to defend himself after Ramos, also 39, put on a pair of latex gloves and told Thomas, “Now see my fists? They are getting ready to (expletive) you up.” The district attorney argued that the threat set the deadly struggle in motion, and Ramos and Cicinelli did nothing to stop it.
Rackauckas also said Cicinelli repeatedly bashed Thomas in the face with a stun gun during the struggle, despite claims by defense attorney Michael Schwartz that his client only made “two quick jabs” to Thomas.
“And what does Cicinelli say ... in his own words,” Rackauckas said,referring to the defendant's comment after the beating, “I got the end of my Taser and I probably, just probably smashed his face to hell.”
Cicinelli was also recorded on digital audio recorders saying, “I (expletive) beat him probably 20 times in the face with this Taser,'' Rackauckas said.
Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, insisted that his client did not unlawfully escalate the confrontation with Thomas, noting that the two men had an earlier confrontation involving a threat with a police baton that did not turn violent.
“It's a ridiculous position to take and that's the position they (prosecutors) took,'' Barnett said.
“Thomas had been homeless for years and racked up a record for mostly minor, nonviolent crimes -- 92 encounters with police and 27 arrests since 1990 -- though he did plead guilty in 1995 to assault with a deadly weapon for hitting his grandfather with a fireplace poker.
Former Fullerton Officer Joe Wolfe, who was indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force, will be tried separately.
A major issue in the trial was the cause of death.
One defense witness testified that Thomas could have died at any time because of his weakened heart. Defense attorneys argued that there may have been a problem putting a breathing tube into Thomas at an area hospital.
Medical experts for the prosecution, however, testified that Thomas' breathing was inhibited during the struggle and that bleeding from a broken nose also blocked his airways, leading to brain death.
-- City News Service