Police beating caused Kelly Thomas’ death, coroner testifies

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas shows the jury an image of police trying to subdue Kelly Thomas on July 5, 2011, during the trial of former Fullerton officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli.
(Bruce Chambers / Associated Press)

The coroner who conducted Kelly Thomas’ autopsy said the homeless man died from lack of oxygen caused by chest compression during his struggle with police.

Aruna Singhania, a pathologist with the Orange County coroner’s office, testified Thursday in the fourth day of the trial of two former Fullerton police officers charged with killing Thomas.

Thomas became brain dead “due to mechanical chest compression with blunt cranial injuries sustained during physical altercation with a law enforcement officer,” Singhania said. “The chest got compressed, that caused [Thomas] not to breathe.”


Manuel Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and Jay Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter. Both are former officers.

Thursday marked the first time jurors in the case saw images of Thomas’ bloodied face while he lay in a hospital bed. In addition to facial bruising, blood matted his red beard and stained the white clothes beside his face.

Thomas, Singhania said, sustained seven external lacerations and abrasions to his face. He also had a fractured nose, an injury to his upper lip and hemorrhaged left eye, she testified.

The pathologist said she reached her conclusion on the cause of death about three months after Thomas died.

She said she conducted an examination of the body, externally and internally, and watched the surveillance video of the fight between Thomas and Fullerton officers before determining the cause of death.

During his opening statements, attorney Michael Schwartz, who is representing Cicinelli, said Thomas died not because of chest compression, but because he had a bad heart due to prior drug use.

Singhania said she couldn’t find any evidence that Thomas used drugs, such as needle track marks. Thomas did have a larger than normal heart, Singhania said, but it was not the cause of death.

“He died with an enlarged heart, he did not die of the enlarged heart,” Singhania said.

Schwartz also maintained that Singhania only came up with a cause of death after she had an unrecorded meeting with Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who is now prosecuting the case.

During her testimony, she said she never changed her mind as to the cause of death. When asked if she ever had meetings with Rackauckas at the coroner’s office, she said she couldn’t remember.

“I don’t remember you ever being there when I determined the cause of death,” Singhania said, in response to a question from Rackauckas.

“You didn’t receive any influence from me of what the cause of death was?” Rackauckas asked.

“That’s correct,” she said.

“Would you accept any influence of what the cause of death was?” he said.

“No,” Singhania said.

[For the Record 2:30 p.m. PST, Dec. 5, 2013: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Singhania said “blunt force injuries.” She said “blunt cranial injuries.]


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