SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A bloody beating by police that left a California homeless man dead began when one of the officers on trial in his death grew frustrated with his evasiveness, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and told him, "Now you see my fists? They're getting ready to (expletive) you up,'" a prosecutor said Monday.
The warning came after the officer, Manuel Ramos, had bantered with Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally ill man, for more than 10 minutes while investigating a call that Thomas had been tampering with cars at a Fullerton transit center, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told jurors in his opening statement at the trial.
"There was a change at this point, a significant change for the worse," Rackauckas said. "This was the turning point where Ramos went from casual to malicious." Ramos, 39, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and is the first officer charged with murder for on-duty actions in the history of Orange County. Jay Cicinelli, 41, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
Ramos was charged with murder because prosecutors say he intentionally acted with malice when he warned Thomas — setting the chain of events in motion. Much of the incident was captured on surveillance tape and audio recordings from officers' body microphones that promise to be the centerpiece of the trial.
Thomas, whose family says was schizophrenic, died five days after the July 5, 2011, confrontation with six officers. Moments after Ramos, Thomas and a third officer began struggling, Cicinelli arrived and used a Taser on Thomas, hitting him eight times in the face and head with the blunt end of the stun gun, prosecutors say.
In court, Rackauckas showed jurors a photo of the Taser, covered in blood, and the blood-soaked sidewalk where Thomas had struggled with police. "He's pinned to the ground, he's face up, the back of his head is on the pavement and so there's no give there. Cicinelli repeatedly pummeled Kelly in the face, without mercy. In his own words, Cicinelli said that he 'smashed his face to hell,'" Rackauckas said. "Kelly didn't really last very long after that. He continued to cry out to his dad for help, he pleaded for mercy, he kept crying out that he couldn't breathe."
John Barnett, a defense attorney for Ramos, and Michael Schwartz, a defense attorney for Cicinelli, painted a different picture of the encounter. The trial is not about "some bully cop who beat a homeless person to death," Barnett said during his opening statement. "This case is not about a homeless, helpless, harmless mentally ill guy. This case is about a man who made choices in his life — bad choices — that led to his tragic death."
Thomas had been taking methamphetamines since the 10th grade that caused him to have spontaneous, violent outbursts, Barnett told jurors. He said Thomas' history of violence included attacking his 73-year-old grandfather with a fireplace poker in 1995 and trying to choke his mother, who took out a restraining order against him. Thomas was convicted of assault in the 1995 case, Barnett said.
Ramos' threat to harm Thomas with his gloved fists was conditional — only if he didn't start listening — and it was clear Thomas didn't take him seriously because he replied, "'Start punching, dude,'" Barnett said.
A desperate struggle followed, with police officers fearing for their safety, Barnett said. They were so overpowered that they called a "Code 3" — an emergency call for all available officers to respond — three times as they tried to wrestle Thomas into handcuffs, he said.
"That means officers are in trouble. That means, we're losing this fight," Barnett said. "The amount of force they were using was not only not too much, it wasn't enough." Cicinelli's attorney, Michael D. Schwartz, said during his opening statement that his client hit Thomas twice on the forehead with the blunt end of the stun gun because Thomas was grabbing for the weapon.
"An officer is trained to never relinquish a weapon to a suspect," Schwartz said. "Never. My client wasn't about to go back on that training." Schwartz also questioned the prosecution's assertion that Thomas died from asphyxiation as officers piled on his chest. He countered that Thomas had a heart attack caused by an underlying heart condition from years of meth abuse.
Thomas, who some called "Crazy Kelly," was familiar to police and known around town for his disheveled red beard and erratic behavior. Ramos had been called on seven previous occasions to remove him from private property, and Thomas had been written up for trespassing, urinating in a fountain and vandalism, among other things, according to court documents.
Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, said outside court that watching the trial was like re-opening a wound, particularly because the defense was picking apart his son's past. "That's all they have — to dirty him up and make him seem like this horrible drug-crazed person who was violently attacking the officers. But it's just not there," he said.
A third Fullerton officer will be tried separately.
AP writers Raquel Maria Dillon and Amy Taxin contributed to this report.
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