The trial in the criminal case of two former Fullerton police officers accused of beating homeless man Kelly Thomas to death two summers ago began Monday.
On July 5, 2011, Thomas was hospitalized after an altercation with six Fullerton police officers at a bus depot. Police were called to the location to investigate a report of a vehicle break-in.
Thomas was hospitalized and died five days later when he was removed from life support.
Former Fullerton Police Department Officer Manuel Ramos is facing one felony count of second degree murder and one felony count of involuntary manslaughter. If convicted, Ramos faces up to 15 years in prison.
He is the first Orange County police officer to be charged with murder while on duty.
Former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is charged with one felony count of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of the use of excessive force.
Prosecutors began their argument by accusing Ramos of threatening Thomas, saying, “Now you see these hands? They’re going to f--- you up.”
But the officer’s defense attorney John Barnett said that was a strategy – a “conditional threat” – Ramos used to avoid confrontation.
Thomas was initially questioned about breaking into cars at the Fullerton Transportation Center. The entire incident was captured on a surveillance camera.
Jurors on Monday were shown portions of that footage, but so far have only heard the officers’ calls for help.
Defense attorneys told the jury that Thomas was a time bomb whose years of methamphetamine use led to spontaneous psychotic episodes.
They spoke of a time when Thomas allegedly beat his 73-year-old grandfather with a fireplace poker.
Ron Thomas, Kelly's father, said his son had mental issues, did not use drugs and on the night he was beaten, had actually surrendered by putting his hands up.
Ron Thomas was at the bus depot Sunday where his son was beaten to death. He said a candlelight vigil was being prepared ahead of the trial.
Ron said he hopes the jury will understand that his son is schizophrenic and not violent.
“This is our day,” he said. “It's finally here.”
Barnett spoke with NBC4 by phone, saying his client was doing his job. Barnett said he believes the video will help his defense.
“We're going to put the video in context of the entire evening, and two decades that preceded it,” Barnett said. “I think when we do that the video will show no crimes were committed by police officers that night.”
The defense argues that Thomas ignored officer orders and fought with them.
“This use of violence is something that happened many times in Kelly Thomas’ past,” Barnett said.
A 13-page, 60-item questionnaire helped to narrow down a prospective jury pool from 2,000 to 117 in November.
Ron said he was told that the trial may run into January.
“For me, it's like opening wounds that never closed to begin with,” he said.
A hearing for a third officer, Joseph Wolfe, is slated for late January.
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