Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cops Face Judge in Homeless Man Beating Death

Kelly Thomas, handout photo.

For the first time in Orange County history, two on-duty uniformed police officers are charged with the killing of a homeless man that sparked outrage when homemade videos of the beating surfaced on the Internet.

It was roughly 8:30 p.m. on the night of July 5, 2011, when police responded to a report that a shirtless man was attempting to break into cars near a bus depot in Fullerton, California. Authorities arrived at the scene to find Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old schizophrenic who had been a fixture in the Fullerton homeless community for many years, and the officers attempted to search him. Thomas refused to let them at first, leading to a physical confrontation. Officer  Manuel Anthony Ramos put on latex gloves and then leaned over to threaten Thomas “Now you see my fists? They are getting ready to f*ck you up.”

What happened next was a brutal beating roughly 10 minutes long in which Thomas was battered with flashlights and tased as many as five times. Thomas was heard yelling “I can’t breathe,” and “ Dad, help me.” With Thomas ultimately subdued by a total of six officers, he was ambulanced to St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton with injuries to the face, head, and neck. Thomas survived on life support until June 10, 2011 when his family allowed him to be taken off. No police officer sustained any notable injuries. The Orange County Coroner concluded that Thomas died from “asphyxia caused by mechanical chest compression with blunt cranial-facial injuries sustained during physical altercation with law enforcement.”

When video of the beating leaked, the community was up in arms. On July 18, 2011, a protest led by the victim’s father Ron Thomas took place outside the Fullerton Police Department. The next month saw street protests outside Fullerton City Hall, in which protesters carried signs reading “End Police Brutality” and “Jail All Killer Cops.”

Kelly Thomas at the hospital, photo taken by Ron Thomas.

After a thorough investigation, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas made his decision: He charged Ofc. Ramos, a 10-year police veteran, with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Ofc. Jay Patrick Cicinelli, a 12-year veteran was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force under color of authority. If convicted of the top count, Ramos faces 15 years to life in prison; Cicinelli faces a potential four years on the manslaughter charge. Both defendants pled not guilty to all charges.

On Monday, the preliminary hearing in the case against Ofcs. Manuel Anthony Ramos, 38, and Jay Patrick Cicinelli, 40, began. The burden of proof is on prosecutors to prove to Judge Walter Schwarm that a crime occurred and that there is reason to believe that the defendants committed the crime – a far lower burden than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that a jury must conclude in a criminal trial.

The prosecution began its case by calling crime-scene investigator Dawn Scruggs, who told the court that Ramos exclaimed after the altercation with Kelly Thomas: “That was the fight of my life… I never had anyone fight me like that.” Through Scrugg’s testimony, the State entered crime scene photos – including grisly photos of Thomas after the beating. The photos were so macabre they elicited audible gasps from the gallery  – and two people rushed out of the courtroom.

Prosecutors also called paramedic Ron Stancyk, who noticed that while Thomas was cuffed and unconsious on the ground, he seemed to be having trouble breathing. Stancyk said that Thomas’s heart stopped beating during the ambulance ride to the hospital, and that Thomas never again regained consciousness.

The prelimary hearing is expected to end early this week. Judge Schwarm is expected to rule at that time whether the case will go to trial before a jury.

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