Jury Selection Begins in Kelly Thomas Civil Trial

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Mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas died because he had a faulty heart, not because of excessive force from the Fullerton police officers who subdued him, lawyers for the officers said Monday.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Thomas’ own conduct and disease in his heart caused his death,” said Kevin Osterberg, attorney for former Fullerton police officer Joseph Wolfe.

Osterberg’s comments came as jury selection began Monday in a civil case filed by Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, against the city of Fullerton, two of its former police chiefs and the six officers who beat his son the night of July 5, 2011. Kelly Thomas ended up unconscious and died five days later.

Lawyers for Ron Thomas argue Kelly Thomas died because the officers used unnecessary force: including hitting him in the face with a taser gun; striking him with batons; and laying on top of him while he cried for his father.

“If he (Kelly Thomas) had an enlarged heart, they’re (the officers) still responsible for his death,” Garo Mardirossian, Ron Thomas’ lawyer, told reporters after the court session. No drugs or alcohol were found in Kelly Thomas’ system.

The death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old schizophrenic, brought national attention to Fullerton, the issue of mentally ill homeless adults and the way they are viewed by police.

A video complied from footage taken by a city camera at the Fullerton bus station, where Thomas was knocked unconscious by the officers, combined with audio from recorders turned on by some of the officers, was put together for the criminal trial of two of the officers.

Click here to view the video.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder and officer Jay Cicinelli with excessive use of force under color of authority. Ramos, Cicinelli were also charged with involuntary manslaughter, as was Wolfe.

Lawyers for the officers and the city argued that they only used the amount of force necessary to subdue Thomas and that he died because he fought the officers.

In 2013, a jury acquitted former Ramos and Cicinelli and charges against Wolfe were subsequently dropped.

For the civil trial, more than 115 prospective jurors were given surveys to fill out Monday and will come back next week so lawyers can begin narrowing the list. The trial could last into February.

At Monday’s court session, lawyers on both sides were given a few minutes to summarize their views of the case for prospective jurors.

Police were called to the Fullerton bus station parking lot after a restaurant worker reported someone was trying the door handles on parked cars.

“The issue in this case is whether the officers acted appropriately,” said Mardirossian.

He told the prospective jurors the coroner determined Kelly Thomas died from asphyxiation and that he lived on the streets because his schizophrenia made him dislike “walls around him or doors. He chose to live outdoors” but could have lived with his father, his mother or grandparents.

His parents are divorced and his mother previously settled her suit against the city for $1 million.

Both sides told the potential jurors they will rely heavily on the half hour video from the parking lot camera and the audio from the Digital Audio Recorders or DARs that some of the officers had turned on.

Mardirossian noted Kelly Thomas wore no shirt and had slip on shoes the night he wound up unconscious on the parking lot pavement.

He repeated a warning Ramos uttered when Thomas “couldn’t keep up with Ramos’ instructions” about where to hold his hands and feet.

“’You see these fists,’” Mardirossian quoted Ramos. “’They’re getting ready to F you up.” Mardirossian used “F” instead of the obscenity that Ramos used.

He also told the potential jurors that after using the taser gun to repeatedly hit Kelly Thomas in the face, Cicinelli told other officers after it was all over “I f-ing beat his face to Hell.”

Cicinelli’s lawyer, Eugene Ramirez said when his client made that comment “adrenelin was pumping through his system” because he had been in the “fight of his life.”

But, he said, “none of the injuries suffered by Mr. Thomas were caused by Mr. Cicinelli.”

Lawyers for the officers and the city said they were “very pleased” and “enthusiastic” about the video being used in the trial and will highlight specific portions to convince the jury their clients did nothing wrong.

Attorney Dana Fox, representing the city, former police chiefs, and two of the last officers to arrive on the scene, called Kelly Thomas’ death a “tragic story” but “Mr. Thomas did not die that day. The evidence will show he had a pre-existing bad heart.”

In terms of any financial damages the jury may award, Fox also said jurors will get information about “what was the nature and quality of the relationship between Ron Thomas and his son?” He did not elaborate.

Ron Thomas is expected to testify during the trial.

Separately and away from the presence of the potential jurors, Nakamura declined to find Ron Thomas violated a September 3 “protective” order when he did an interview with radio station KFI in October.

The protective order bars lawyers, their clients and expert witnesses from providing or discussing with anyone, including news organizations, information the judge has ordered remain confidential including reports prepared by Michael Gennaco of the Office of Independent Review.”

Click here to read one of Gennaco’s reports.

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.

  • Jacki Livingston

    I hope Ron Thomas cleans the city and those cops’ clocks. I hope he is awarded every flipping penny these cops ever did or ever will have. The tape is the truth, Kelly Thomas was murdered by cops who never understand that they are not cowboys, in the wild west. They completely overstepped their authority and they killed this man, with no guilt, no compassion and no sense of responsibility. I hope his dad gets their homes, their salaries and their pensions. Just one time, let the truth win.

  • dsimmons

    this whole story sounds ridiculous. coming in contact with police caused his death. that’s all to it.

  • Dark_Space

    You can clearly tell from that picture of his battered face in the hospital bed that it was caused by a heart attack. /s

  • OCservant_Leader

    Kelly Thomas was alive. The Fullerton Police Department showed up, and now he is dead. End of story.

    Open the checkbook City of Fullerton, and start adding zeros to the number.

    What is a son worth? What is a citizen worth? What is a citizen who suffers from mental illness…worth?

    This is about punitive damages to make up for what the corrupt DA couldn’t do, and that’s find justice and change SOP of law enforcement.

    When the government can beat to-death- innocent citizens, we all need to be afraid. Be very afraid.

    R.I.P. Kelly Thomas.

  • David Zenger

    Cicinelli’s lawyer is lying (of course) and his client’s own recorded statement proves it.

  • David Zenger

    The Chief of Police Dan Hughes fired Wolfe, Ramos and Cicinelli, even though the training office claimed (under oath) that the cops behaved within FPD policy.

    Some one isn’t telling the truth.

  • LFOldTimer

    What a defense. So let me see if I understand this correctly. If 6 large adults forcibly restrain a man with an alleged heart condition and beat him to the point that he was unrecognizable, comatose and choking on his own blood by breaking multiple facial and interfering with normal breathing function it’s not the fault of the assaulters – it’s the fault of the victim’s heart. The coroner concluded that compression of the thorax made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen, resulting in death. Wow. I think that civil defense is going to go over with like a lead balloon with the jurors. But I guess when all you have is a lemon you make the best lemonaide possible. However, if I were a juror that story would insult me and it would be taken it into full consideration when punitive damages were on the table for discussion.

    • RyanCantor

      “However, if I were a juror that story would insult me . . . ”

      I’ll tell you this much– as a taxpayer and resident, it’s pretty insulting that I’m paying for an attorney to make a claim like that.

      I get that Fullerton has to put up some kind of defense, but come on. We’re traversing into amoral land. This is not the way to represent the collective actions of the community. There are more important things than the size of the check we’re going to have to cut.

      I hope that at some point during this trial, Fullerton’s conscience decides to make an appearance.

      • LFOldTimer

        What other plausible defense could they use? That they mistook Kelly for an Al-Queda terrorist on the FBI’s ten most wanted list? They had to concoct something. Apparently the heart story was the best handful that they could throw up against the wall hoping that some would stick.

  • RyanCantor

    “Mr. Thomas did not die that day. The evidence will show he had a pre-existing bad heart.”

    Un-fing-believable.

  • Paul Lucas

    God speed Ron Thomas.

    • David Zenger

      There is only one witness that matters in this trial and that’s Ron Thomas. Did he really have any sort of relationship with his son? If not he gets zilch and the whole thing is finally over.