Jury Selection Begins in Kelly Thomas Civil Trial

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.