Challenging the prosecution’s claim that a mentally ill homeless man died as a result of a severe police beating, a forensic pathologist told jurors Wednesday that Kelly Thomas succumbed to a weakened heart caused by using meth.
Dr. Steven Karch, who studies how drugs affect the heart and cause death, said Thomas suffered from methamphetamine cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart caused by drug abuse.
The finding contradicts the official coroner’s report.
Karch was the defense’s final witness in the high-profile case, but final arguments are not scheduled until next year because of the approaching holidays.
Thomas’ clash with police in 2011 was precipitated by a spontaneous psychotic episode that was also induced by meth use, Karch said.
The pathologist said he disagreed with the Orange County coroner’s determination that Thomas died of brain damage from lack of oxygen caused by chest compression and injuries to the face.
Thomas died five days after his struggle with police.
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.
“He could have died sitting in a closet by himself,” Karch said, “but I would suspect that the added stress of this fight or physical altercation would make it worse.”
“I can’t prove it one way or another,” he later said.
Former Fullerton officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli are both 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 Kelly 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.
However, people who had a habit of using meth and then stopped taking it could still be affected years later, suffering from such things as having 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 it was unlikely someone in a clear state of mind would take on six policemen.
The strength it would take to fight with half a dozen police officers would normally be difficult, but would 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 never tested positive for drug use or been arrested for possession or solicitation.
The family has said Thomas suffered from schizophrenia.
Prosecutors are expected to call Dr. Anthony Juguilon, chief forensic pathologist for the Orange County coroner, during their rebuttal Thursday.
The court will recess for the holidays after his testimony and will return in January for closing arguments.
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