Jurors’ verdict on O.C. officers may hinge on grainy video
At the heart of the Kelly Thomas murder case is a grainy black-and-white video that covers, almost in its entirety, the struggle between the homeless man and police officers at a bustling Fullerton bus depot on a summer night in 2011.
As jurors in Orange County now deliberate the fate of the officers, they must determine what that video actually shows.
Prosecutors say the tape clearly presents a confused and vulnerable Thomas who died because one bully cop picked a fight and another lost control and slammed Thomas in the face repeatedly with his stun gun. In the defense’s telling, the video captures a violent and errant street person who gave police the fight of their lives.
Winning a homicide conviction against an on-duty officer is rare, but the district attorney in law-and-order Orange County is staking his reputation on just such a case. Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas led the prosecution against former officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, telling jurors that the video offers irrefutable proof that the cops should be convicted of murder and manslaughter.
But two seasoned defense attorneys with years of experience coming to the aid of officers accused of wrongdoing have asked the jury to put emotions aside and see the confrontation from the officers’ perspective.
Again and again they have urged: Don’t convict a cop simply for doing his job.
During more than three weeks of testimony, about two dozen witnesses were called, including medical experts, Fullerton police officers and Thomas’ mother and grandfather, who testified about violent incidents involving Thomas.
Throughout the case, defense attorneys John Barnett, who represents Ramos, and Michael Schwartz, who represents Cicinelli, argued that the officers followed their training to the letter.
“This case isn’t about a bully cop who was trying to just beat down a homeless guy. It’s about a police officer who for 10 years protected his community and did everything he could do to keep the community safe,” Barnett told jurors.
The jury of eight women and four men began deliberations Thursday and is expected to continue Monday.
By all accounts, Thomas’ meeting with police began casually. In the first minutes of the video, he can be seen talking with Ramos. They exchange a bit of sarcasm, but both men appear relaxed as Ramos asks Thomas whether he was rattling car doors in a nearby parking lot.
The tension builds a few minutes later as Thomas sits on a curb while Ramos instructs him to put his feet out in front of him and his hands on his knees. Thomas intermittently follows the instructions but at one point tells Ramos he doesn’t understand. Clearly frustrated, Ramos stands over Thomas, pulling on a pair of latex gloves.
“Get your feet out in front of you,” the officer says, his voice tense. “Feet out in front of you.”
In Barnett’s telling, Thomas openly defied Ramos’ command, creating a dangerous situation for the officer. “Kelly Thomas is required by law to submit in this circumstance. He’s got to submit. And he didn’t,” he said.
But Rackauckas said the terse conservation marks the moment when what started as a routine police encounter turned into a crime scene.
“He’s putting the gloves on in his face, snapping them on, it’s a strong statement, it’s a statement that once the gloves are on … we’re ready to go to contact now,” Rackauckas said.
Within seconds, Thomas stands up and backs away and the scene devolves into a chaotic altercation that begins with Ramos and another officer striking Thomas with their batons. Four other officers join the fight before it ends with Thomas crumpled on the ground in a pool of his own blood.
Attorneys on both sides agree that when Cicinelli arrived on the scene, he had every reason to believe the officers were in danger.
But prosecutors said he crossed the line when he stopped using his stun gun as it was intended and began using it as a blunt-force weapon to strike Thomas in the head.
One of the most contentious points in the trial is whether police even caused Thomas’ death.
Prosecutors say Thomas was suffocated in the altercation, and two coroner’s pathologists and a surgeon who treated Thomas all told jurors that he died because his chest was compressed during the struggle, starving his brain of oxygen.
During the struggle, “various persons were on [Thomas] and holding him down … preventing him from breathing,” testified Dr. Michael Lekawa, chief of trauma surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange.
But the defense attorneys dismissed that notion. During cross-examination, Barnett asked coroner’s pathologist Aruna Singhania to point out the moment when Thomas’ chest was compressed. She argued that it wasn’t one single instance but rather a prolonged period of struggle that made it impossible for Thomas to breathe.
The officers’ attorneys also asked the jury to consider Thomas’ past. Barnett and Schwartz say Thomas had a history of methamphetamine use and violent outbursts, including hitting his grandfather with a fireplace poker and grabbing his mother by the throat.
The homeless man died not because of the altercation with police, but because his past drug abuse had damaged his heart, the attorneys said.
“He could have died sitting in a closet by himself,” defense expert Dr. Steven Karch told the jury.
A toxicology report said that the 37-year-old Thomas didn’t have any drugs or alcohol in his system the night of the confrontation.
The prosecution says the jury can see for itself how Thomas died. During closing arguments, Rackauckas played clips of Thomas screaming out at least nine times that he couldn’t breathe.
“The video proves what happened and what didn’t happen,” he told the jury.
Thomas’ mother, Cathy Thomas, sitting among dozens of spectators in the audience, cried each time the clips were played.
Times staff writer Adolfo Flores contributed to this report.
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