Challenging the heart of the prosecution's case, a forensic pathologist told jurors Wednesday that heavy meth use — and not a severe police beating in the streets of Fullerton — killed a homeless man who was a familiar face in the college city's downtown.
Dr. Steven Karch, the final witness for two former city police officers charged with killing Kelly Thomas, said the homeless man suffered from methamphetamine cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart caused by drug abuse.
"He could have died sitting in a closet by himself," Karch said.
The finding contradicts the official coroner's report, which concluded that Thomas died as a direct result of a police beating, during which he was hit repeatedly with a baton and stun gun.
The 2011 case has drawn national attention and represents a departure in law-and-order Orange County with two officers charged with criminal behavior while on duty. In his opening remarks, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said the officers' violent encounter with Thomas went "far beyond what is acceptable in a free society."
But Karch said Thomas' clash with police was "precipitated" by a spontaneous psychotic episode brought on by past meth use. The pathologist said he disagreed with the Orange County coroner's determination that Thomas died of brain damage from a lack of oxygen caused by chest compression and injuries to the face. A UC Irvine trauma surgeon also testified that Thomas died because of inadequate oxygen to his brain.
Thomas was comatose when he arrived at the hospital, and died five days later.
Karch wouldn't say whether Thomas' fight with police on July 5, 2011, caused his heart to fail but said it could be a possibility.
"I would suspect that the added stress of this fight or physical altercation would make it worse," Karch said.
"So you're not saying he was destined to die on that particular day and the police just happened to be there?" Rackauckas said.
"Only God can say that," Karch said.
Former Fullerton officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli are charged with involuntary manslaughter in Thomas' death. Ramos is also charged with second-degree murder and Cicinelli with use of excessive force.
A doctor who prepared a report on Thomas after he attacked his grandfather in 1995 with a fireplace poker wrote that Thomas told him he used methamphetamine and did "a lot" of LSD up until 1994.
A toxicology report, however, found that Thomas had no drugs or alcohol in his system the night of the beating.
However, people who habitually use meth can still be affected years later by the drug, suffering from such things as a weak heart and spontaneous psychotic episodes, Karch said.
Thomas, he said, appeared to have had a psychotic episode the night he clashed with police, because only someone with "some kind of mental malfunction" would take on six police officers.
The strength it would take to fight with half a dozen police officers would normally be difficult to gather, but would be easy under a meth-induced psychotic episode, he said.
"He had a psychotic episode and it certainly didn't make the situation better," Karch said. "Was it the cause of death? I don't know."
Karch said he was being paid $750 an hour for his evaluation and testimony.
During a break in court Wednesday, Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, said his son had never tested positive for drug use or had been arrested for possession or solicitation of drugs. The family has said Thomas suffered from schizophrenia.
The case has largely turned on a jarring black-and-white video of the beating, captured on a surveillance camera at the city's transportation center, which was bustling with customers the night of the incident.
But the two sides have reached far different interpretations of what is shows. Prosecutors said the video shows Thomas helplessly weathering an assault by the officers, calling out for help. Defense lawyers said Thomas was so out-of-control that officers had to repeatedly call for backup.
Because of the approaching holidays, closing arguments will not take place until next year.