DA Says ‘Bullying’ Led to Thomas’ Death at Hands of Fullerton Officers

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During his opening statements in the People v. Ramos and Cicinelli trial, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas wields a police baton, demonstrating how he believes Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos threatened Kelly Thomas. (PHOTO BY: BRUCE CHAMBERS, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER)

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas Tuesday stood before the eight women and four men who will determine the fate of two former Fullerton police officers and step by step began arguing his murder and manslaughter case that, he said, ended with mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas “lying in the street in a pool of his own blood, dying.”

Not true, countered defense attorneys for Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli.

Their attorneys told the jury that not only did neither officer do anything wrong, but the 37-year-old Thomas didn’t die of injuries sustained in the battle with police.

“There was not a crime here. A tragedy, yes. A crime, no,” Michael D. Schwartz, attorney for Cicinelli, told the jury. “Sometimes tragedies happen in this world. They’re not always crimes.”

The opening arguments launched one of Orange County’s most high-profile criminal trials in recent history and the first time ever in Orange County that a police officer in uniform has been charged with murder while on duty.

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

On July 5, 2011, the former officers and four others responded to reports that Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, was trying to break into parked cars. The officers ultimately surrounded Thomas at the Fullerton bus depot and beat him until he was unconscious. He died five days later without ever regaining consciousness.

In his presentation, Rackauckas emphasized how vulnerable the homeless man was and accused Ramos of “bullying” him into an attempt to run away that ended in Thomas’ death. The trial is expected to run into January.

Ramos’ lawyer, John Barnett, countered that in seven earlier encounters between his client and Thomas, there never was violence, because Ramos always relied on arguments to persuade Thomas to leave an area or provide information.

But Barnett said Thomas had a history of drug abuse and violence and it was Thomas’ fault that the fight with police broke out because Thomas wouldn’t follow orders.

“Kelly Thomas made choices, and he made bad, violent choices,” said Barnett. He underscored his belief that Thomas was subject to unpredictable violence by holding up for the jury a fireplace poker as he told them a teenaged Thomas hit his grandfather on the head with a similar weapon.

Schwartz said his medical experts will testify Thomas had an enlarged heart, possibly as the result of drug use, and died because his heart couldn’t pump enough blood when he was battling the police.

“There was no deadly beating at all,” he said.

The defense said the official coroner’s report was defective and also changed from its original after Rackauckas interceded. That report said Thomas died as the result of compression injuries from officers smothering him and blood in his lungs from head injuries.

Thomas died “not from compression but from a bad heart,” said Schwartz.

But in his presentation, Rackauckas told the jury that excessive use of force by the police killed Thomas.

To be legal, he said, “force must be necessary and reasonable or else it’s excessive.”

The first day of the trial, which attracted widespread media coverage, took a strange turn when Judge William Froeberg apparently stopped television and still photography pool news coverage midway through opening statements by the defense.

A spokesman for the TV pool coordinator, the Radio and Television News Assn. of Southern California, said the district attorney’s office wanted copies of its material but they refused because news organizations don’t work on behalf of government officials.

He said no other county in the Los Angeles region had tried to gain such access. The DA’s office said it had a right under the pool arrangement to access the feeds.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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