Crime & Justice

OC DA charges 2 officers in beating death; 1 pleads not guilty

Handcuffed Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos (R) faces second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli faces involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force charges for the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man who died after altercation with several police officers, during arraignment in Orange County Superior Court on September 21, 2011 in Santa Ana, California.
Handcuffed Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos (R) faces second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli faces involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force charges for the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man who died after altercation with several police officers, during arraignment in Orange County Superior Court on September 21, 2011 in Santa Ana, California.
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Two Fullerton Police officers face murder charges in the July 5 beating death of homeless schizophrenic man Kelly Thomas. One has pleaded not guilty.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told a Santa Ana news conference Wednesday that he’d charged Officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. A second officer, Corporal Jay Cicinelli, is also facing an involuntary manslaughter charge, plus a charge of use of excessive force.

Ramos faces 15 years to life in state prison if convicted; Cicinelli faces up to four years.

The murder charges against the Fullerton officers were based on evidence and accounts from 151 witnesses, from audio recorded by the officers and from a video recorded at the Fullerton bus terminal where officers had come to investigate a report of someone breaking into cars.

Authorities say that’s where the officers apprehended 37-year-old Thomas. Rackauckas said video shows a shirtless and unarmed Thomas confronted by Ramos, but apparently unable to follow the officer’s commands.

The Thomas family said Kelly Thomas was schizophrenic and living on the streets. The DA said Ramos pulled on latex gloves and raised his fists in front of the homeless man’s face.

"Ramos was telling Kelly Thomas at that moment that this encounter had changed," Rackauckas said. "That it went from a fairly routine police investigation, detention to an impending beating from an angry police officer. A police officer that wanted to F him up with his fists."

Rackauckas said Ramos called for backup. Five other officers got involved, including Cicinelli.

The DA said video shows him kneeing Thomas twice in the head, and then zapping him three times with a stun gun by pressing it on the man’s body. Then, said Rackauckas, Cicinelli used the stun gun a fourth time.

"The fourth was a dart deployment," Rackacuckas said. "Two darts fired from the end of the Taser connected to wires and the dart affixed to Kelly Thomas for approximately 12 seconds. Kelly Thomas screamed and yelled in pain while he was being Tased."

The DA said Cicinelli then struck Thomas with the stun gun eight times in the face as the other officers had the homeless man pinned to the ground.

Five days after the beating, doctors took Thomas off life support. The coroner’s report released Tuesday said he died of “mechanical compression of the thorax, which deprived his brain of oxygen.” Rackauckas said the coroner's report contributed to the charge.

"It's always a tough battle to convict a police officer of anything," Rackacuckas said on KPCC's "AirTalk" Thursday. "I can tell you this is quite a departure from normal police behavior."

Rackauckas said that the case is dealing with "implied malice," an officer intentionally doing a dangerous act without caring for human life. "[Ramos] really didn't care about the life of Kelly Thomas," Rackauckas said. He added that it's an inference based on evidence showing the officers' guilt.

"[Ramos] didn't just talk, he didn't just have a lawful detention," Rackauckas said. "I don't know why the officer became so angry but he did."

Rackauckas said the other officers' actions were based in reasonable police behavior, attempting to subdue Thomas and move him. He said that those officers were not complacent in the actual beating, as they showed up later on after called by Ramos and were trying to help a fellow officer.

In response to the charges Kelly Thomas' father Ron Thomas said he was elated. "This is really what I wanted. At least two of them, and we have two of them.”

Ron Thomas told reporters the charges are more than he expected from the DA's office. He called the DA’s investigation a surprise, saying, "they certainly knew a lot more than we did even though we did know a lot of information.”

Three hours after the DA’s news conference, Ramos and Cicinelli were in court to answer charges. Ramos did not enter a plea; he’s jailed on $1 million bail and will be back in court on Monday for his arraignment. Cicinelli pleaded “not guilty.” He’s free on $25,000 bail and scheduled to return to court in November.

Veteran defense attorney John Barnett is representing Ramos. “Officer Ramos is not guilty of any crime whatsoever," Barnett said, who also represented LAPD officer Theodore Briseno in the Rodney King beating case almost 20 years ago. "He was merely doing his job. He was confronted with a person who was violent had been violent and simply did his job and for that he’s being prosecuted with murder and that’s just wrong." Barnett spoke with KPCC’s Larry Mantle.

The prosecutors said Thomas was acting "in self-defense, in pain and in a state of panic. His numerous pleas of 'I'm sorry,' 'I can't breathe,' 'Help,' 'Dad' — all to no avail. Screams, loud screams, didn't help."

It's going to be a tough case for prosecutors, according to Laurie Levenson, law professor at Loyola Law School. Levenson appeared on KPCC's "AirTalk." Levenson said that jurors are often reluctant to convict police officers.

Jurors are going to be asking tough questions, Levenson said, including why the officer would have done what he did in the situation and why the officer would use excessive force now after years of being with the police with no other known complaints. "Why on this time does he have this conscious disregard when he hasn't had it before?" Levenson said.

She said that this will be a polarizing case, with some thinking the prosecution has gone too far and that police have a hard job, while others say the police have been out of control and this was a long time coming.

Levenson said that the likelihood of conviction is much higher on the involuntary manslaughter charge, but that even that is challenging.

Rackauckas said in Orange County the law enforcement is generally trusted, "They're hardworking, they make daily sacrifices to protect and to serve our community. We must do everything that we can to ensure that we protect this trust, including, if necessary, prosecuting police officers who violate the law."

“The district attorney has conducted the investigation and we respect the decision," said Fullerton's acting police chief Kevin Hamilton late Wednesday afternoon in a short statement at a news conference.

The Fullerton Police Department issued a statement that said the beating death was “a tragic event for Kelly Thomas, the Thomas family, the community, the police department and for all of those who are involved.”

Fullerton Police have been under intense scrutiny since the death. Police Chief Michael Sellers has gone on a month-to-month medical leave since August, when two City Council members called for his resignation, leaving Capt. Hamilton as acting chief.

Six officers were placed on paid administrative leave after the incident that occurred while police were investigating reported vehicle break-ins at a transit hub.

Thomas's death touched off a firestorm in Fullerton, including an effort to recall three City Council members.

Kelly Thomas' father, former sheriff's deputy Ron Thomas, and the victim's mother, Cathy, have filed a claim against Fullerton, the precursor to a lawsuit. They are represented by attorney Garo Mardirossian, who has held several news conferences to criticize Fullerton police and pressure Rackauckas to accelerate his investigation.

Mardirossian also represents Edward Miguel Quinonez, 28, and Veth Mam, 35, who allege that Fullerton police officer Kenton Hampton falsely arrested them in separate incidents. Mam was acquitted of resisting arrest and Quinonez, who filed a complaint with Fullerton police last year, reached a settlement with city officials.

Mardirossian has claimed Hampton was among the six officers involved in Thomas' arrest, but city officials have not confirmed that.

The FBI has opened a parallel investigation into whether the officers violated Thomas' civil rights and Fullerton City Council members have also hired an independent investigator to do an internal review of the arrest.

Correction: The headline has been changed to clarify an earlier headline saying that both officers were charged with murder.

This story has been updated.