SANTA ANA, Calif. – Two Southern California police officers were ordered Wednesday to stand trial in the death of a mentally ill homeless man following a violent arrest last summer.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm made the ruling after a hearing that included surveillance video of the confrontation between the officers and 37-year-old Kelly Thomas in the city of Fullerton.
Officer Manuel Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault or battery by a public officer. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The officers confronted Thomas while responding to reports that a homeless man was looking into parked cars at a transit center.
"This is another victory, on another battle," said Thomas' father, Ron. "We're going to start a new one with the trial."
John Barnett, Ramos' attorney, said he would seek another court's review of Schwarm's ruling and did not expect his client would end up facing a jury trial.
"We're disappointed that they were held to answer but we will seek review in an appropriate manner," he told reporters after the ruling. "He believes, and he is innocent."
A message was left for Michael Schwartz, Cicinelli's attorney, seeking comment on the ruling.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said during the hearing that Ramos bullied a shirtless Thomas with his menacing remarks and aggressive stance — actions that would have led anyone to fear they were about to get beaten by police.
"Any person, any creature on this earth would have fear at that point," Rackauckas told the court during the preliminary hearing.
"You're going to fight or flee because this is an imminent threat of a serious beating by a police officer who is there with a baton and a gun and other police officers.... This is going to be a very bad deal," the prosecutor said.
Defense attorneys countered that police — who are authorized and trained to use force when necessary — viewed the incident as an encounter with a man who refused to give his name and continued to resist arrest even as multiple officers rushed to assist.
The three-day hearing was marked by repeated showing of clips from surveillance video and audio recordings of the confrontation. The footage includes scenes of officers pummeling and pinning down Thomas as he screams that he can't breathe and moans for his father until he goes silent and is taken away by medics, leaving behind a pool of blood.
Barnett, Ramos' attorney, said during the hearing that the video — which was introduced by the prosecution — shows that his client made a conditional threat during his conversation with Thomas, stating he wanted the man to start listening and following police orders, such as sitting with his legs stretched out and providing his name to officers.
"All that Kelly Thomas had to do was simply comply," Barnett said. "Officer Ramos just lifts him up, he's going to arrest him. ... Not only can he do it, he must do it. He is bound to do it."
"Officer Ramos didn't do anything that should or could kill Kelly Thomas," Barnett said, pointing out that his client is often seen on the video at the man's feet.
Prosecutors have argued that Ramos punched Thomas in the ribs, tackled him and lay on him to hold him down while Cicinelli — who arrived later on the scene — used a Taser four times on Thomas as he hollered in pain and hit him in the face eight times with the Taser.
Thomas lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital. He was taken off life support and died five days later.
The coroner's office found that Thomas died from compression of his chest that made it difficult for him to breathe and deprived his brain of oxygen, and facial injuries stemming from his confrontation with law enforcement.
In court, Schwartz, Cicinelli's attorney, challenged those findings, noting that testimony by a paramedic who treated Thomas at the scene indicates that Thomas was breathing, although with difficulty, during the confrontation.
Schwartz also defended his client's use of the Taser on Thomas, who was still struggling and resisting officers' efforts to handcuff him, and said Cicinelli only swung the Taser at Thomas' hand when the man made an effort to grab the weapon.
"To call that a crime is to effectively handcuff our police officers out in the field from dealing with any combative suspect," Schwartz said.
The hearing in a Santa Ana courtroom was marked by lengthy testimony from medical experts and graphic photos of Thomas' injuries, including multiple bruises and a bloodied eye, while he was lying on the autopsy table.
Attorneys repeatedly played portions of the grainy surveillance video, which was paired with audio from digital recorders worn by some of the officers who were present and which brought some of Thomas' supporters to tears and prompted them to leave the courtroom.
The incident last July prompted an ongoing FBI investigation to determine if Thomas' civil rights were violated, an internal probe by the city, protests by residents and an effort to recall three Fullerton councilmembers that is slated for next month's ballot.
The recall was sparked after angry residents chastised the council members for failing to take significant action regarding the incident.