In the matter of the death of Kelly Thomas...
After just more than five days of testimony, prosecutors have rested their case in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers charged in the 2011 death of a mentally ill, homeless man.Ed Joyce, covering the trial of former Fullerton police officers manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, has provided excellent accounts of each day's trial proceedings.
The Orange County District Attorney's Office called 11 witnesses to stand in its case against Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, each charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Kelly Thomas. Ramos faces an additional count of second-degree murder. Cicinelli was also charged with use of excessive force.This is the third time a peace officer in California has been on trial for a murder committed while on duty. (BART Policeman Johannes Meserle was tried for the murder of Oscar Grant, but found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter in 2010. CHP Officer Craig Peyer was convicted of the murder by strangulation of Cara Knott in 1988).
Here is the heart of the prosecution's case:
Key testimony came from a pathologist contracted by the Orange County Coroner's Office to conduct the autopsy on Thomas.
Dr. Aruna Singhania testified Thomas died from a lack of oxygen to the brain brought on by blunt force trauma to face and head and compression to the chest.
Prosecutors also questioned Dr. Michael Lekawa, a trauma specialist at UC Irvine Medical Center who treated Thomas the night of the incident. He testified Thomas remained "comatose" from the moment he first saw Thomas until he died on July 10, 2011.
Lekawa also testified that he agreed with Singhania that the cause of Thomas' death was a lack of oxygen to his brain, due to chest compression and head and facial fractures that Thomas suffered during the altercation with officers.
Here are excerpts from each day's coverage:
The... District Attorney said Monday that the behavior of former Fullerton police officers was "unwarranted and unreasonable" in the violent beating of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died days after the confrontation...December 3rd. Audio and Video walk throughs by prosecutors.
Ramos: Now you see my fist?In its opening argument, the defense challenged the prosecutor's contention that Thomas was not a threat the night of the altercation, saying Thomas made "bad, violent choices."
Ramos: I'm getting ready to f**k you up.
((Defense lawyer)) Barnett used a projection screen to show the jury a timeline of what he said was a pattern of Kelly Thomas' violent behavior beginning in the mid-1990s up to the alteration with police officers outside the Fullerton Transportation Center.
"His own mother had to get a restraining order to keep him away," Barnett said, pointing to a December 2010 incident in which Thomas "put his hands around his mother's neck."
Deputy District Attorney Keith Bogardus resumed the introduction of audio recordings of interactions between defendant Manuel Ramos and Kelly Thomas that predated the July 2011 altercation.December 4th. CSI and Paramedics at the scene are questioned.
Many of the interactions were cordial, even jocular at times, as Ramos talked with Thomas. Ramos is also heard describing Thomas' red beard and hair.
As the audio ((of the incident in question)) reached the point where the confrontation became physical and Thomas is heard screaming "I'm sorry," his mother, Cathy Thomas, left the courtroom. During the playing of the video earlier Tuesday, she openly sobbed, and a court bailiff handed her tissues. She returned to the courtroom after the conclusion of the audio.
When Thomas is heard saying "help me dad," his father, Ron Thomas, cast a glance toward the defendants table, where Ramos and Cicinelli were seated.
((CSI)) Scruggs testified that Ramos, Cicinelli and fellow Fullerton police officer Joe Wolfe were "tired" when she took photos of them and their injuries at the scene...December 5th. Dr. Singhania from the Coroner's Office.
"I wouldn't describe him of being in shock, but in a state of 'disbelief' not really in a state of shock," testified Scruggs when asked about Cicinelli's condition...
"I directed the EMT to use a scope (EKG machine) to check his heart," Stancyk said. "He had a large amount of blood in his beard, on his face and chest so we had to put the EKG leads on his back," said Stancyk, a 29-year veteran of the Fullerton Fire Department and a paramedic for 24 of those years.
Stancyk testified that Thomas had a "slow rate of breathing, a pulse rate of 60 and blood in his nose."
But Stancyk said Thomas' breathing "was not normal."
Asst. District Atty. Jim Tanizaki asked Stancyk whether Thomas was "responsive" when he first saw him.
Tanizaki: "Did he regain consciousness when you were with him?"
Singhania used a pointer to identify and describe bruises, contusions, abrasions and lacerations on various parts of Thomas' body...December 9th. FBI "tactics expert" John Wilson questions Ramos' words and actions.
Rackauckas: "When did you reach your conclusion as to the cause of death."
Singhania: "September 21, 2011."
Rackauckas: "What was your conclusion as to the cause of death?"
Signhania: "Cause of death was anoxic encephalopathy [brain damage or death due to lack of oxygen] due to mechanical chest compression along with blunt cranial and facial injuries [which reduced oxygen to the brain]."
Rackauckas: "Is it your conclusion that during the struggle there was not enough oxygen to sustain his (Thomas) system?
Singhania: "That is correct."
Defense attorneys for Ramos and Cicinelli have said in court that Kelly Thomas died from an enlarged heart, brought on by years of drug abuse.
Rackauckas asked Dr. Singhania if Thomas died from an enlarged heart.
"He died with an enlarged heart, not from an enlarged heart," Singhania said. "That's (enlarged heart) not part of the cause of death."
((Defense attorney)) Schwartz: "No broken ribs, right?"
Schwartz: "No bruising inside the lungs, right?"
Singhania: "That's right."
Schwartz Underneath the skin [on left side of chest] you didn't see any other sign of bruising?
Singhania: "That's right."
"Being able to effectively communicate will reduce the chances of someone (suspect or law enforcement) getting hurt," Wilson testified as he enumerated the principals.December 10th.Wilson finishes testifying. Doctor who treated Thomas testifies.
He said the sixth tactical principle is "control of yourself, control of your suspect, control of your environment."
((Prosecutor)) Rackauckas: "Is it appropriate police conduct for an officer to use the words "See my fists. They're getting ready to fuck you up."
Wilson: "No, it is not appropriate to do so."
Rackauckas (to Wilson): "ls using the baton appropriate in this situation?"
Wilson: "No, it would not be appropriate to proceed. And by using the baton in this situation, it only exacerbates the situation...
Rackauckas: "Is it appropriate for police to proceed in this tactic to hogtie and restrain the suspect in this manner?"
Wilson: "Its gone from a 'stop and inquire about' to a situation where life support, medical attention is needed. You change your tactics from restraining the suspect to giving them the support they need so they don't die."
((Defense attorney)) Barnett: "Is is fair for Ramos to assume that verbal threats that were successful in his previous interactions with Thomas would be a successful strategy again"
Barnett: "Then it would be appropriate to use a verbal threat?"
Wilson: "But my point is it's not guaranteed that it will work again."
Barnett: "But it was certainly worth trying?"
Wilson: "Yes it was."
Barnett: "He [Ramos] had a right to use force?"
Wilson: "He had a right to use force to respond to any resistance he was encountering."
But under continued questioning from Barnett, Wilson said: "Everything changes when officer Ramos puts his hands on Kelly Thomas... It's no longer a use of appropriate force." Wilson referred to the point of the video, where Ramos make physical contact with Thomas and Thomas stands up.
The video continued. Thomas is heard screaming, amid sounds of the Taser being used.December 11th. The people rest. (From the LA Times)
The video was stopped, paused, the played in slow motion backwards and forwards several times as Schwartz asked Wilson to point out the moment where Wilson said he can see Cicinelli using his Taser to strike Kelly Thomas.
Wilson identified a part of the video where he said Cicinelli used his Taser to strike Thomas' face.
This particular 15-25 second portion of the video showed Thomas screaming...
Schwartz: "The cartridge [for the Taser] is still attached to the front of the Taser?"
Wilson: "Yes it is."
Schwartz: "And the darts [from the Taser] are attached to Mr. Thomas."
Wilson: "At least one dart is I believe."
Defense attorney Michael Schwartz continued his cross-examination, asking former FBI tactics expert John Wilson about using a Taser as a so-called "impact weapon" to physically strike someone.
Defendant Jay Cicinelli is accused of using his Taser in such a manner against Thomas, and Wilson has testified use of an "impact weapon" can be considered "deadly force."
Schwartz asked Wilson if such a weapon could cause bodily injury to police officers if a suspect got possession of it.
Dr. Michael Lewaka ((chief of the trauma center where Thomas was treated)) Lekawa: "His blood pressure was 74/34, his heart rate was 132 and his respiratory rate was 38."
Rackauckas: "What does that tell you?"
Lekawa: "Those are abnormal signs. Less than 90 for blood pressure is critical. It needs to be addressed. Normal heart rate is in the 70s."
Rackauckas: "So what do these conditions mean?"
Lekawa said the chest x-ray showed the tube was in the correct spot, and the CT scan revealed the area around one of his sinuses was "fractured and bleeding in the sinus.
Lekawa: "There was fluid in his lungs, bruises on his lungs, three fractured ribs. And there was swelling where the bowel connects to the liver and some other fluid deep in the abdomen. The gallbladder wall was swollen. The pancreas might have had a laceration as well."
(Prosecutor)) Rackauckas asked Lekawa what caused Thomas' death.
Lekawa: "His heart stopped in the field and a lack of oxygen to the brain caused irreversible brain injury and brain death."
On further questioning from Rackauckas, Lekawa connected actions during the struggle as contributing to Thomas's death.
Lekawa: "Seemingly a reasonably young, healthy guy was being restrained and said he couldn't breathe. He is speaking in sentences, then single words, then garbled speech. Ultimately, he's not speaking at all. The head assault, compression, bleeding from his nose and facial fractures, ultimately led to a lack of oxygen to his brain."
((Defense attorney)) Barnett asked Lekawa if Thomas is heard saying "I can't breathe" wouldn’t he still be breathing?
Lekawa: "Yes, but his voice gets slower. He is breathing some, but it's still inadequate. The irreversible effect was when he no longer is speaking."
Just after 11:30 a.m., and shortly after the prosecution's final witness left the stand, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas told Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg simply "the people rest."From Joyce's article for the day.
Many expected the prosecution's case to take longer, but Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said a short case may have been part of the strategy devised by the Orange County District Attorney's Office.In my opinion the prosecutors presented a solid case, with strong testimony from various medical professionals. The defense will have a hard time making a case if its case is based on refuting the medical evidence presented.
"Seems like it has gone pretty quickly," Levenson said. "If you look at high-profile cases, prosecutors have done best when they have been able to focus their case and get the most important evidence before the jury. If they spend too long presenting the case, jurors begin to wonder why, and the defense is better able to pick it apart."
The prosecution's case focused largely on a surveillance video of the struggle synced with audio from officers' voice recorders.
At one point in the video a man is heard saying, "I smashed his face to hell." Prosecutors say the voice belongs to Cicinelli.
Defense attorneys allege Thomas was the aggressor in the struggle and died from heart complications brought on by years of drug abuse...
The defense will begin its case Thursday morning. During the trial last week, Cicinelli defense attorney Michael Schwartz indicated he would call expert medical witnesses to refute Singhania's cause of death determination.
The defense's probable best hope is to assert that Ramos and Cicinelli were just "doing their jobs," gambling on the fact that juries almost never convict police officers regardless of the facts.
Or will history be made? If Ramos is convicted of murder, it will be the first case of police brutality in California in which an officer has been found guilty of murdering someone (Peyer, mentioned at the beginning of the article abducted his victim, while Meserle was convicted of manslaughter, not murder).
All the families of the victims of police violence deserve their day in court, but almost none see it happen. Kelly Thomas' family, as hard as it is for them, is getting theirs.