Two Fullerton police officers were ordered today to stand trial for the beating death of schizophrenic transient Kelly Thomas.
Officer Manuel Anthony Ramos, 38, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, while Cpl Jay Cicinelli, 40, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force in the beating last July 5 at the Fullerton Transportation Center. The 37-year-old homeless man died five days later when his family took him off life support.
The 38-year-old Ramos, a 10-year Fullerton police veteran, is free on $1 million bail, one of the highest ever posted in Orange County. Cicinelli, 42, is free on $25,000 bail. They are both on unpaid administrative leave.
Ramos faces a potential sentence of 15 years to life if convicted of second-degree murder but only four years if convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli faces a maximum sentence of four years in prison.
At the conclusion of a hearing that lasted more than two days, Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm said "there is sufficient probable cause" to hold the officers over for trial.
Ramos and Cicinelli are due back in court for arraignment May 22.
The preliminary hearing was highlighted by the showing of a gripping videotape of the police confrontation with Thomas -- which was captured on a surveillance camera at the Fullerton Transportation Center. Thomas can be heard pleaded for help from his father, while officers repeatedly strike him in what they called an effort to subdue the man.
In his closing argument, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas focused on Ramos' threat to beat up Thomas if he did not comply with his orders.
Ramos, who was first on the scene about 8:30 p.m., responded to a call of someone trying to break into cars at the bus and train center. Officer Joe Wolfe -- who has not been charged -- showed up a short time later.
While Wolfe went through Thomas' backpack, Ramos carried on a conversation with Thomas that was often filled with sarcastic barbs. Ramos swung his baton during the conversation, Rackauckas said, in a way that could be perceived as intimidating.
The district attorney conceded that Thomas was "being a bit of a jerk" to Ramos, but said Ramos "was being cavalier and arrogant."
Ramos had Thomas sit down, which he did, but when Wolfe found mail in Thomas' backpack addressed to someone else, the two officers discussed arresting him for receiving stolen property.
Ramos then started giving Thomas orders, which apparently confused him, prompting Ramos to say, "I tried to be nice" before he donned latex gloves and held his fists up to Thomas.
"Now you see my fists?" Ramos asked.
"Yeah. What about 'em?" Thomas replied.
"They're getting ready to (expletive) you up," Ramos said.
"Start punching, dude," Thomas responded.
"If you don't (expletive) start listening," Ramos answered.
Rackauckas argued the threat made Thomas fear he was going to get beat up, giving him the legal right to defend himself. Thomas tried to comply with Ramos' orders after the threat, but complained he didn't understand them, and ultimately got up to run, prompting Wolfe to strike him with his baton, followed by Ramos doing the same.
Cicinelli, responding to a call that the officers needed assistance, jumped out of his squad car and started to use his Taser.
Thomas did not give the officers any reason to fear him, Rackauckas said.
"(Ramos) felt no threat from Kelly Thomas," he said. "At times he even had his (holstered) gun in Kelly Thomas' face, right where he could reach it."
Ramos should have had another officer arrest Thomas after he issued the threat, or he could have backed off the threat, Rackauckas argued.
Using the Taser gun once might be considered reasonable force under the circumstances for Cicinelli, Rackauckas said. But he shot Thomas with it multiple times and then used the butt of the gun to beat his face, Rackauckas said.
"He does not give him time to comply. He just zaps him again. Then he jumps on him and smashes his face with the Taser. Those aren't my words, those are his words," Rackauckas said, referring to Cicinelli telling a fellow officer, "I just smashed his face to hell."
Rackauckas said the video shows blood splattering in the air from Thomas' face when Cicinelli hits him with the Taser.
Then referring to Ramos' threat, he said, "There's just no way in the world that's lawful conduct. Is that implied malice? Of course it is."
Defense attorney John Barnett, who represents Ramos, argued that his client had a right to detain and arrest Thomas. Furthermore, Ramos had a right to threaten Thomas, as well, Barnett argued.
The defense attorney compared it to a police officer responding to a burglary in progress and telling the suspect to "stop, or I'll shoot."
"Under the prosecutor's logic, a suspect can flee with impunity" if an officer tells the suspect to comply with an order or else face some type of force, Barnett said.
Thomas was being uncooperative and refused to comply with the orders of the officers, he said, adding there's also no evidence that the officers knew of Thomas' history of mental illness.
Barnett argued that the threat was a "conditional" one, pointing out that Rackauckas stopped short of reminding the judge that Ramos said, "If you don't start listening."
He also argued that Thomas couldn't have taken the threat seriously since he said, "Start punching, dude."
Attorney Michael Schwartz, who represents Cicinelli, said, "We can all agree any loss of life is a tragedy ... (But) it's a tragic loss of life that was not due to a crime, period."
Cicinelli had no way of knowing what happened before the struggle and was simply responding to an emergency, Schwartz argued. All Cicinelli saw when he arrived were his fellow officers involved in a struggle with a "combative" suspect, Schwartz said.
Schwartz said it appeared Wolfe was striking Thomas in the face, not Cicinelli, and that Thomas was trying to reach for the Taser gun.
Cicinelli acted reasonably because one of the officers had only gotten one part of the handcuffs on Thomas and the other half could have been used as a weapon, Schwartz said, adding that Thomas would not stop struggling.
The law does allow someone to defend himself against excessive police force, but the law also takes into account the state of mind of the officer in the moment, Schwartz argued.
"We don't use 20/20 hindsight to judge those officers," he said. "We can't have suspects dictate what an officer can do under the law."
Schwartz maintained that it wasn't blood splattering that is shown on the video, but the wires from the Taser gun.
Schwartz also asserted there was no evidence that Cicinelli landed blows to Thomas' face with the Taser gun, though prosecutors have shown photos of the gun with blood on it.
During the hearing, Dr. Michael Lekawa of UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange testified that he believes the cause of Thomas' death was hypoxia, in which he ended up brain-dead because he did not get enough oxygen.
Dr. Aruna Singhania, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Thomas, testified that the man died due to bleeding from his broken nose and other facial injuries, which filled up his inflamed lungs, as well as chest compressions, all of which slowed his breathing. The oxygen deprivation ultimately left him brain dead, Singhania testified.
Thomas had an enlarged heart, but it likely did not contribute to his death, even though he went into cardiac arrest in the ambulance, according to Singhania.