Kelly Thomas Prelim Turns to Details of Autopsy Report

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Fullerton police Officer Manuel Ramos listens to witness testimony during Tuesday's preliminary hearing in Santa Ana. (Pool Photo by: Joshua Sudock, The Orange County Register)

The preliminary hearing for two Fullerton police officers accused of murder and manslaughter in the death of  mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas turned Tuesday to details of the autopsy report.

Orange County coroner’s pathologist Aruna Singhania, who performed the autopsy on Thomas, testified Tuesday that he died of a combination of chest and face injuries that ultimately left him brain dead.

As District Attorney Tony Rackauckas began to introduce the autopsy photos, Kelly Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, left the courtroom. But other family members remained. They avoided seeing the photos by turning their heads away from the video monitors, closing their eyes or leaning forward and resting their foreheads on the seat backs in front of them.

Singhania, who wound up sparring with defense attorney John Barnett over the exact minute when Thomas stopped breathing, said all of the significant injuries had to be considered in combination in determining what caused his death.

She was the fourth prosecution witness to testify in the two-day preliminary hearing. Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm will determine whether there is enough evidence to require Officer Manuel Ramos and Cpl. Jay Patrick Cicinelli to stand trial.

Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.

Rackauckas and defense attorneys Barnett, who represents Ramos, and Michael D. Schwartz, who represents Cicinelli, are expected to finish their presentations Wednesday. It wasn’t clear whether Schwarm intends to make an immediate decision.

Singhania, who said she has conducted 11,000 autopsies in her 30 years with the coroner’s office, said she performed the Thomas autopsy July 11, one day after he was pronounced brain-dead and six days after he was beaten by police during a struggle at the Fullerton bus station. Thomas lost consciousness before paramedics arrived and never regained consciousness.

During her testimony, Singhania identified various injuries Thomas suffered, using autopsy photos to show injuries to his face and other areas, especially the inside of his left arm from elbow to armpit. She said the arm was badly bruised during the compression that blocked Thomas’ breathing.

Barnett determinedly cross-examined Singhania much of the day, trying to have her pinpoint the exact minute when officers pressing on the 37-year-old Kelly Thomas’ chest caused him to stop breathing.

But Singhania repeatedly responded that the pressure had to be considered with other injuries, like the broken nose that caused blood to drain into Thomas’ throat, to describe the cause of death.

“Again, you’re asking only one factor,” Singhania told Barnett at one point. “You’re not asking [about] another factor.”

At another time, Barnett asked whether there wasn’t disagreement in the coroner’s office over the cause of Kelly Thomas’ death.

There “never was disagreement in the coroner’s office,” replied Singhania.

-- TRACY WOOD

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