The long-awaited preliminary hearing for two Fullerton police officers accused in the beating and suffocation death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas will begin Monday morning in Orange County Superior Court.
The death of Thomas, 37, who suffered from untreated schizophrenia, focused a national spotlight on mental illness, homelessness issues and the treatment in general of those who live on the streets.
In September, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged Officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, Ramos faces a maximum sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is accused of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. Cicinelli could be sentenced to as long as four years.
Rackauckas is expected to present a video with sound of the beating taken by a city camera on a light pole at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
It will be the first time the video has been seen by the public. Kelly Thomas’ family members were allowed to review it but not to discuss it, because it is evidence in the DA’s case.
Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, stated in an email Thursday that the DA’s office advised him the preliminary hearing will probably last through Wednesday.
The purpose of a preliminary hearing, according to California criminal law, is to determine whether enough evidence exists to try the defendants for felonies.
On the evening of July 5, someone called the police to report that a man might be breaking into cars at the Fullerton Transportation Center. Ramos was among the first of six officers that eventually responded to the scene.
Rackauckas said Ramos initiated contact with the unarmed Thomas and then began the beating, which Cicinelli joined. The beating lasted for 10 minutes, accdording to the DA.
The two officers held Thomas down and repeatedly hit him and used a stun gun while he begged for mercy, Rackauckas said. Thomas lost consciousness during the beating and died five days later.
Four other officers at the scene were not charged, Rackauckas said, because there was no evidence that they participated in the beating, although at various points they may have helped subdue Thomas.
Ron Thomas said he will attend the preliminary hearing but the DA’s office will give him a “timeline” on when evidence is likely to be presented so he can leave the courtroom.
“NOTHING will be held back in this hearing, including the Autopsy Photos that I certainly don’t want to see,” Ron Thomas wrote in his email.
The coroner ruled the death a homicide. According to the autopsy report, Thomas suffocated from pressure on his chest and blood from head injuries that entered his lungs.
The DA’s September report as well as videos from bystanders show Kelly Thomas screaming “I can’t breathe,” “I’m sorry, dude,” “Please,” “Okay, okay,” “Dad, dad,” and “Dad, help me.”
The DA’s report notes “after paramedics arrived, Cicinelli is accused of commenting about his use of force and the physical damage to Thomas.”
Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers went on medical leave soon after news reports of the beating and retired earlier this year. Dan Hughes is now the acting chief.
Three of the city’s five City Council members are facing a recall election next month, accused by political adversaries and supporters of the Thomas family of failing to respond compassionately to Thomas’ death and to move swiftly to discover what happened within the police department.
The results of an internal affairs investigation of all Fullerton Police Department officers involved in Thomas’ death were delivered to Hughes last week.
The report is the second of three commissioned by the city from an outside special investigator, Los Angeles attorney Michael Gennaco.
Sometime after the preliminary hearing, Gennaco is scheduled to release a third, comprehensive report on the Fullerton Police Department.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Civil Rights Division also is conducting an investigation of how Thomas died and who was responsible.
Please contact Tracy Wood directly at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.
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