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Kelly Thomas didn't die of heart failure, cardiologist says

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Prosecutors in the trial of two Fullerton police officers accused of beating a mentally ill homeless man to death called on a cardiologist Monday who said Kelly Thomas didn’t die of heart failure, refuting the claims of defense lawyers.

The question of what killed Thomas has been a recurrent and contested issue in the trial.

A forensic pathologist, testifying on behalf of former officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, previously told jurors that Thomas succumbed to a weakened heart caused by drug use. The Orange County district attorney’s office says that the 37-year-old homeless man died as a direct result of a severe 2011 police beating.

Dr. Matthew Budoff, program director for cardiology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, said CAT scans and X-rays of Thomas’ heart show no evidence of heart failure.

“He could’ve had some early stages of damage to his heart, but his heart was not weakened,” Budoff testified.

Thomas “would not have died of heart failure because his heart was still normal at this point,” he said.

An Orange County coroner determined that Thomas died of brain damage from lack of oxygen caused by chest compression and injuries to the face during his struggle with police.

Five days after his violent encounter with police, Thomas died when he was taken off life support.

Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.

Budoff said the walls of Thomas’ heart were thicker than average, but  disagreed with the testimony of Dr. Steven Karch, a forensic pathologist who studies how drugs affect the heart and cause death.

“I don’t think there’s any evidence of heart failure or weakened heart in Mr. Thomas,” Budoff said.

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 methamphetamines and did “a lot” of LSD up until 1994.

A toxicology report, however, found that Thomas didn’t have any drugs or alcohol in his system the night of the beating.

Karch, who was called back to the stand Monday morning, previously testified that people who had a habit of using meth and then stopped taking it could still be affected years later.

On Monday he stuck to his previous testimony that Thomas’ meth abuse caused his heart to thicken and scar.

Thomas died of cardiac arrest because the damage to his heart didn’t allow it to function properly, Karch said.

“Is there anything in Dr. Budoff’s testimony that changes your opinion as to the cause of Kelly Thomas’ death?” asked John Barnett, Ramos’ attorney.

“No,” Karch said.

In his previous testimony, 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.

Karch and Budoff said they were being paid $750 an hour for their testimony. Karch was also paid $750 an hour to review files in the case and Budoff was paid $400.

Closing arguments in the case are expected to take place Tuesday morning.

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adolfo.flores@latimes.com

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