Judge Orders Trial for Officers in Death of Kelly Thomas

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Two Fullerton police officers were ordered Wednesday to stand trial on murder and manslaughter charges in the beating death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm ordered Officer Manual Ramos and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli to return to Superior Court May 22 for assignment to a trial judge.

Defense lawyer John Barnett, who represents Ramos, immediately told reporters he will ask whichever judge is assigned to the case to dismiss the charges against his client. If that fails, he said, he’ll petition the state appellate court.

Ramos is accused of second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the July 2011 death of the 37-year-old Thomas. If convicted, he faces 15 years to life in prison.

Cicinelli, accused of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force, could spend four years in prison if convicted.

The most important evidence at the three-day preliminary hearing was a 33-minute video taken by a city security camera of the moments leading up to the July 5 police beating of Kelly Thomas and, with some segments obscured by a tree, the beating and subsequent arrival of paramedics to take Thomas to St. Jude Medical Center.

Thomas died five days later at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange without regaining consciousness.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ staff combined the video with audio from recorders worn by some of the officers. The video went viral on the Internet. All sides at the preliminary hearing used parts of it to support their arguments.

The preliminary hearing also highlighted some elements of the prosecution case that likely will be targeted by defense attorneys when the trial begins.

Defense attorney Michael D. Schwartz, who represents Cicinelli, labeled Orange County coroner’s pathologist Aruna Singhania “arrogant,” said her autopsy report on Kelly Thomas missed the fact that he had broken ribs and added “what else did she miss?”

A few minutes later he said, “She’s basically making things up as she goes along, and it doesn’t make sense.” He added that “even the cause of death has not been proven.”

But Rackauckas labeled Schwartz’ allegations a “substantial mischaracterization” of testimony given by Singhania and Dr. Michael Lekawa, chief of trauma and critical care services at UCI Medical Center.

Barnett blamed Kelly Thomas for his own death.

He said officers were just trying to get his cooperation and give them his name, “but Kelly Thomas, who has control of the situation, will not cooperate.” He said no evidence was presented showing Kelly Thomas was “mentally incapacitated.”

Rackauckas said the video and medical evidence show that Ramos, through gestures like “twirling” his baton while talking to Thomas, putting on latex gloves and threatening to “f— you up,” frightened Thomas.

Ramos, according to Rackauckas, “started the chain of circumstances that led to the death of Kelly Thomas.” And, he said, Kelly Thomas became brain dead from the cumulative effect of his injuries.

At times this week as many as nine TV crews had cameras stationed in the news conference area of the county courthouse in Santa Ana, a demonstration of the widespread attention paid to the shirtless, somewhat disheveled man of the streets who died screaming for help from his father and is believed to have suffered from untreated schizophrenia.

His father, Ron Thomas, has waged an unrelenting campaign to see officers involved in his son’s death sent to prison.

Despite official reluctance to move against any officers in the initial weeks following Kelly Thomas’ July 10 death, Ron Thomas and several dozen supporters demonstrated outside the Fullerton police station, set up a memorial at the Transportation Center where Kelly Thomas was beaten and ultimately saw Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers resign after a medical leave of absence and Rackauckas file charges against two of the six officers who were involved.

Spectators, including many Kelly Thomas supporters, filled the courtroom Wednesday, waiting for Schwarm’s decision on whether Ramos and Cicinelli would face trial.

For 11 minutes, those in the courtroom, including the two defendants, sat silently after one of the dozen uniformed sheriff’s deputies ordered all to take their seats and wait for the judge.

Cicinelli, who sat through much of the final day of arguments with his elbow on the table in front of him and his chin resting on his hand, sat with rounded shoulders waiting for the judge, his gaze fixed on the tabletop. Ramos stared straight ahead.

“I want to assure everyone I have looked at the totality of the evidence …,” Schwarm began. He then quickly read through his decision to order both men to trial on all charges, the usual outcome of a preliminary hearing.

“You did it,” a man in the crowd congratulated Ron Thomas as the audience got up to leave the courtroom.

“I can’t say that I’m happy,” Ron Thomas told a news conference a few minutes later.

He said he viewed the preliminary hearing as one battle in a war to bring legal action against the officers. More battles, including the trial, he said, are to come.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.twood@voiceofoc.org

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