Former Fullerton Police Officer Manuel Ramos went from unprofessional to threatening in his interaction with Kelly Thomas, to the point where the mentally ill homeless man had the right to defend himself, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas told jurors Tuesday.
“He knew clearly he was out of bounds, out of bounds of his authority of proper police conduct. He knew he had created a right to self-defense on the part of Kelly Thomas,” Rackauckas said.
Rackauckas presented his closing argument Tuesday in the criminal case against Ramos and former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli. Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter; Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force in the death of Thomas, a Fullerton transient whose death five days after the July 2011 beating galvanized a series of protests against police brutality, led to the recall of City Council members and resulted in an unprecedented murder charge in Orange County against a police officer.
At the outset of his nearly four-hour long presentation, Rackauckas told jurors that they will be the conscience of the county when they decide whether Ramos and Cicinelli should be convicted.
“You’re going to send a message to the defendants, to the police and to the public as to whether or not the conduct depicted in this case … is acceptable,” Rackauckas said.
The district attorney methodically described the evidence presented to the jury since the trial began in early December. He dismissed defense witnesses who said Thomas had a history of violence and drug use as efforts to smear the homeless man. And he returned again and again to a surveillance video, which captured the confrontation between Thomas and police.
The video has been played numerous times during the trial, at times in split-second intervals. And on Tuesday, Rackauckas played clips of the video more than a dozen times during his argument.
“You can see and hear for yourself what happened,” Rackauckas said. “As you watch, you realize that what you’re watching and hearing is a person dying at the hands of police.”
In the first few minutes of the video, which is paired with audio from the officer’s digital recorders, Ramos can be seen talking to Thomas, asking his name and whether Thomas had been rattling car doors in the parking lot. Ramos and another officer were responding to a report saying that someone had been trying car doors in a nearby parking lot.
Ramos acted unprofessionally almost from the moment he stopped Thomas, Rackauckas said.
In order for jurors to find Ramos guilty of second-degree murder, they must find that he knew he was acting in a way that was inherently dangerous to human life and that he disregarded that risk.
Rackauckas argued that as the encounter went on, Ramos became more and more confrontational with Thomas until he pulled out a pair of gloves and told him, “See these fists?... They’re getting ready to ... you up.”
“Can you imagine having a police officer say something like that when you’re sitting there?” Rackauckas asked the jury, his voice rising. “What does that mean? I’m ready to ... you up? That means I’m gonna beat you up severely. That means there’s gonna be injuries here.”
At this point, Rackauckas said, Thomas had a right to defend himself against the officer. In the video, Thomas can be seen standing up and backing away from Ramos. Within seconds, Ramos and the other officer began swinging their batons at him.
Cicinelli arrived at the scene as the two officers struggled with Thomas on the ground. He used his stun gun multiple times and then hit Thomas’s face with it.
As he described the scene, Rackauckas pulled a yellow Taser out of a plastic bag and held it in his right hand.
Thomas’ “head is to the pavement and he’s getting this from the top down. This, this is going to cause damage to somebody’s face,” Rackauckas said.
Thomas, he added, “is not dangerous to anybody at this point. He’s just resisting, he’s squirming, he’s moving around. So Cpl. Cicinelli decides to use deadly force to control the situation. That is unreasonable and excessive.”
Toward the end of his argument, Rackauckas eschewed the video and played just the audio of the last few minutes of the confrontation accompanied by quotes projected onto a large black screen.
Thomas could be heard, screaming for his father and calling for help.
“Dad, help me.”
“God, help me.”
“Help me, please, Dad.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Daddy. Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.”
“Help me. Help me. Help me.”
“I don’t know about you,” Rackauckas said, “but I can’t recall ever hearing such pleas. Such crying. Such begging for his life. Ever.”