2 Calif police officers on trial in homeless death
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — More than two years after his son died in a violent confrontation with police, Ron Thomas still hears the echoes of that night.
Audio recordings and surveillance video taken during the incident show 37-year-old Kelly Thomas calling for his father nearly 30 times. As the minutes tick by, Thomas’ desperate screams for his father trail off into groans of “Daddy” and then stop altogether as he loses consciousness.
Ron Thomas was nowhere near the scene that night as police kneed, shocked and pinned his son down in a nearly 10-minute brawl, but he has stood by him ever since, championing a call for justice that heads to court Monday for two of the six officers involved.
One of them, Manuel Ramos, is charged with second-degree murder, marking the first murder trial of a uniformed police officer in conservative Orange County’s history.
“It’s like a wound you keep opening,” said Ron Thomas, who says his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “One of the last things, I think, he was able to slowly moan out is: ‘Daddy, they’re killing me.’ I lay there at night and think about that. It’ll get you to the point where you can’t function and you just cry a lot.”
Ramos, 39, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Jay Cicinelli, 42, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. Both are free on bail. A third officer will be tried separately on charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Three other officers were not charged.
The case garnered national attention at the time and fueled months of local protests that led to the resignation of the police chief and a recall election in the small college town.
The six-week trial promises to re-ignite those passions: A judge has banned the family’s supporters — a loose coalition that calls itself “Kelly’s Army” — from wearing pins and T-shirts that might inflame the jury and district attorney’s office itself plans to use Twitter daily to update the public on its case.
Thomas, who some called “Crazy Kelly,” was known around town for his disheveled red beard and erratic behavior and was already familiar to police. Ramos himself had been called on seven previous occasions to remove him from private property and Thomas had been written up for trespassing, urinating in a fountain and vandalism, among other things.
The altercation that led to his death started in much the same way, with Ramos rolling up to a police call about a man who was trying to open car doors at Fullerton’s busy transit center. This time, however, things escalated — and much of it was captured on the surveillance tape that promises to be the trial’s centerpiece.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has said investigators overlaid recordings from the officers’ body microphones with the tape, allowing prosecutors to provide a blow-by-blow narrative of an “impending beating by an angry police officer” and verbatim quotes from the officers and Thomas as the scene unfolded.
Initially, Ramos chides Thomas for his evasive answers: “It seems like every day, we have to talk to you about somethin’ ... Do you enjoy it?” Ramos asks Thomas, according to a prosecution transcript.
Within minutes, Ramos grows angry as Thomas refuses to cooperate. He snaps on latex gloves, holds his fists in front of Thomas’ face and says, “Now see my fists? They are getting ready to (expletive) you up.”
Thomas stood up and pulled away, prosecutors said, and Ramos chased him down, tackled him and punched him in the ribs as he pinned him down.
Cicinelli, who arrived moments later, is accused of kneeing Thomas twice in the head and using a Taser on him four times before hitting him in the face with the blunt end of the stun gun eight times. The coroner listed the cause of death as mechanical compression of the thorax, which made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen.
“This is a case where the district attorney’s office is fighting for what law enforcement is supposed to be in Orange County and for our community. It’s not OK for police officers to commit crimes,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney’s chief of staff.
Defense attorneys, however, portray a very different encounter and are seeking to introduce evidence that Thomas had a history of violence and suffered from psychotic episodes due to prolonged methamphetamine abuse.
The surveillance video doesn’t begin until 25 seconds into the confrontation and doesn’t show, for example, how Thomas reached repeatedly for Cicinelli’s weapon as they struggled, according to defense motions.
In the audio recordings, Cicinelli can be heard telling others that Thomas must be “on something” because it took three officers to get him in handcuffs. Ramos adds that Thomas tried to bite him through his pants.
The judge will allow defense attorneys to tell the jury about Thomas’ prior conviction for assaulting his grandfather with a fireplace poker and about a restraining order that his mother sought against him after he held her by the throat during an argument.
The defense team also plans to present its own expert who will testify that Thomas had an enlarged heart due to chronic methamphetamine abuse, providing an alternate cause of death.
The prosecution has painted a “false image of Kelly Thomas being this sort of compliant, non-violent homeless person and that is belied by the other incidents,” Ramos’ attorney, John Barnett, said at a recent pre-trial hearing. He added outside court that there was no evidence of schizophrenia, but that Thomas “took meth and LSD since the 10th grade and ruined his cognitive abilities.”
Thomas’ father is angered by talk of drug abuse and points out his son didn’t have anything in his system that night.
“It doesn’t matter what my son did in his life, it just doesn’t matter. It’s what the officers did that night,” he said. “That’s what this trial’s about.”