Opening statements are underway in the trial of two California police officers charged in the death of a homeless man whose family says was schizophrenic.
Audio recording and surveillance video taken during the incident show 37 year old Kelly Thomas calling for his father nearly 30 times. Thomas’ desperate screams for his father trail off into groans of “Daddy” and then stop altogether as he loses consciousness.
Ron Thomas, was nowhere near the scene the night as police kneed, shocked and pinned his son down in a nearly 10 minute brawl.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Monday that Fullerton officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli are responsible for the death of Thomas in July 2011. Thomas a mentally ill homeless man was taken off life support five days before his encounter with the police. Ramos has pleaded not guilty to second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. A third officer will be tried separately on charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. The other officers were not charged.
Officers responded to a call about a man jiggling car door handles in a transit center parking lot. Defense attorneys, however, said their clients simply followed police protocol and did no wrong.
They faced a combative and aggressive suspect who appeared to have almost super-human strength as he continued to fight attempts to handcuff him even after additional officers joined th fight and despite being shocked with a Taser several times, said defense attorney Michael D. Schwartz, who represents Cicinelli.
The trial is not about “some bully cop who beat a homeless person to death,” Ramos’ defense attorney, John Barnett, told jurors. “This case is not about a homeless, helpless, harmless mental ill guy. This case is about a man who made choices in his life - bad choices - that led to his tragic death.”
Thomas had been taking methamphetamines since the 10th grade that caused him to have spontaneous, violent outbursts, Barnett told jurors. Barnett included Thomas’s history of violence which included attacking his 73-year old grandfather with a fireplace poker in 1995 and trying to choke his mother, who took out a restraining order against him. Thomas was convicted of assault in the 1995 case, Barnett said.
A third officer will be tried separately on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, Three other officers were not charged.
This case has gathered nation attention and has fueled months of local protests that led to the resignation of the police chief and a recall election in the small college town. The district attorney’s office is fighting for what law enforcement is supposed to be in Orange County and for our community. It’s not ok for police officers to commit crimes,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney’s chief of staff.
Defense attorneys, however, portray a very different encounter and are seeking to introduce evidence that Thomas has a history of violence and suffered from psychotic episodes due to prolonged methamphetamine abuse.
The surveillance video doesn’t begin until 25 seconds into the confrontation and doesn’t show, how Thomas reached repeatedly for Cicinelli’s weapon as they struggled, according to defense motions. In the audio recordings, Cicinelli can be heard telling others that Thomas must be “on something” because it took three officers to get him in handcuffs. Ramos add that Thomas tried to bite him through his pants.
Ron Thomas, is angered by talk of drug abuse and points out his son didn’t have anything in his system that night.
"It doesn't matter what my son did in his life, it just doesn't matter. It's what the officers did that night," he said. "That's what this trial's about."