Three ex-Fullerton cops face October trial in homeless man's death

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An Orange County Superior Court judge Friday rejected a motion to dismiss charges against a former Fullerton police officer charged in connection with the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless, schizophrenic man.

Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg ruled that Officer Joe Wolfe should face a jury on charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Wolfe was indicted in September.

Wolfe and co-defendants Jay Cicinelli, a former corporal, and Manuel Anthony Ramos, a former officer, are scheduled for trial October 18, but Wolfe's case is expected to take longer to go to trial, one of his attorneys, Vicki Podberesky said. Wolfe's attorneys may appeal Froeberg's ruling.

Froeberg acknowledged in his ruling that Wolfe "was apparently acting in the belief that Mr. Thomas was unlawfully resisting arrest and disobeying lawful orders of Officer Ramos."

The judge, however, said jurors should consider the evidence against Wolfe.

"There is no question that it is legally proper for a police officer to come to the aid of a fellow officer," Froeberg said. "However, the manner in which that aid is rendered is subject to scrutiny. Whether the force used was reasonable under the circumstances is a question for the jury."

The judge noted there is evidence Wolfe "wrestled" Thomas to the ground and pinned him down.

"A reasonable inference from the evidence is that Officer Wolfe used unlawful force, constituting an assault under color of authority, by in essence suffocating Mr. Thomas with his body after Mr. Thomas complained that he could not breathe and was dying."

Froeberg also noted in his ruling that Wolfe "did nothing to come to the aid of Mr. Thomas, who he had just rendered unconscious and left in a pool of blood."

Wolfe's attorneys referred to comments Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas made about Wolfe at the news conference announcing charges against Cicinelli and Ramos.

At the September 2011 news conference, Rackauckas told reporters that at the time investigators lacked evidence Wolfe knew of Ramos' alleged threats against Thomas and was trying to help his partner catch a fleeing suspect, according to Wolfe's motion.

Wolfe's attorneys also argued that Thomas "quickly jumped up" and attempted to land a left jab to Wolfe before the officers struck Thomas.

 In January, Froeberg declined to dismiss charges against Ramos, who is  charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the July 5, 2011, beating. On March 7, an appeals court panel denied Ramos' appeal. Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.

Police went to the Fullerton Transportation Center in response to a 911 call from the nearby Slidebar nightclub that someone was trying to break into cars outside the club. Investigators have determined Thomas was not trying to break into cars.

Wolfe and Ramos confronted Thomas at the transportation center. While Wolfe went through a backpack Thomas had with him, Ramos and Thomas engaged in a lengthy, often sarcastic and prickly, exchange.     

Thomas ran from the officers after Ramos held his fists up to him and ordered him to follow his instructions, officials said. That touched off the skirmish that ultimately included six officers as they worked to restrain Thomas.

Ramos faces a potential sentence of 15 years to life if convicted of second-degree murder but only four years if convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli and Wolfe face a maximum sentence of four years in prison if found guilty.

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