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Closings begin at trial of officers in death

Posted: January 7, 2014 11:20 a.m.
Updated: January 7, 2014 11:20 a.m.
 

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Two California police officers accused of killing a homeless man acted with unreasonable force and violated police procedure when they got into a violent struggle with him during a routine police call, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday during closing arguments in the murder trial.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas also showed footage from a 33-minute surveillance video that captured the confrontation with 37-year-old Kelly Thomas.

"As you watch, you realize that what you're watching and hearing is a person dying at the hands of the police," the prosecutor said. "You're watching a homicide."

Former Fullerton Officer Manuel Ramos, 39, has pleaded not guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter. Former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli has pleaded not guilty to one count of involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive use of force.

A third officer will be tried separately.

It's the first time in the history of conservative Orange County that prosecutors have charged a police officer with murder for actions taken on the job. Rackauckas, the four-term district attorney, has handled much of the trial himself.

In the video, Ramos can be heard trying to get Thomas to give his name and sit on the curb with his hands on his knees while another officer searches his backpack. Thomas was shirtless and had a huge, bushy beard and baggy pants.

When Thomas didn't comply, Ramos put on a pair of Latex gloves, made two fists and told Thomas, "Now you see my fists? They're getting ready to (expletive) you up."

Thomas stood up and started to run but was overtaken by the officers, who called for backup as the struggle with Thomas grew.

Cicinelli, who arrived shortly after the incident began, struck Thomas eight times in the face and head with a stun gun and stunned him repeatedly, according to prosecutors.

Defense attorneys will deliver their closing arguments in the monthlong trial when the prosecution is done.

Thomas' 2011 death galvanized activists, who dubbed themselves "Kelly's Army," and led to the recall of three Fullerton City Council members and the departure of the police chief.

Jurors repeatedly watched the surveillance video during trial.

In it, Thomas can be heard screaming for his father nearly 30 times and crying out repeatedly that he can't breathe as six policemen fight to restrain him. The video was synced with audio from the officers' body microphones.

The July 5, 2011, incident began with a routine call about a disheveled man jiggling the handles of parked cars in a transit center.

Ramos had seven previous encounters with Thomas, who had also been written up for trespassing, urinating in a fountain, punching someone in the face, throwing large rocks and threatening the owner of a fruit stand with a metal pipe. Thomas' father has said his son suffered from schizophrenia.

On Tuesday, Rackauckas told jurors that Ramos signaled his intent to harm Thomas when he put on the gloves and made fists. He said Thomas reacted in self-defense.

"Can you imagine that? Can you imagine having a police officer saying something like that when you're sitting there?" he asked the jury. "What does that mean? That means, I'm going to beat you up severely. There's going to be injuries here."

Both sides called medical experts to help jurors determine if the conduct of Ramos and Cicinelli killed Thomas.

The coroner listed the cause of death as asphyxiation from the officers piling on his chest during the struggle.

Defense attorneys countered that Thomas suffered from a weakened heart from years of methamphetamine abuse and was a mentally unstable and violent man who had abused drugs and alcohol since 10th grade.

A forensic pathologist testified for the defense that the individual cells in Thomas' heart had changed size and shape because of the drug abuse and had microscopic scarring. Thomas' heart weighed 20 to 25 percent more than it should have for a man his age and size.

Those abnormalities could have produced an electrical arrhythmia that killed Thomas, Dr. Steven Karch told jurors Monday.

"What I saw were dead and dying heart cells," he said.

Prosecutors countered with a doctor who testified that scans taken at the hospital showed Thomas' heart was healthy and the normal size for a man his size and age. Blood tests measuring the acidity levels in his blood, however, indicated he had been deprived of oxygen, which caused his heart to slow dramatically, said Dr. Matthew Budoff, a cardiologist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

"There was no arrhythmia in Kelly Thomas. We know that," Budoff said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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