Trial set for ex-Fullerton cops charged in Kelly Thomas beating death

Joshua Sudock, Pool photo, Orange County Register

A crime scene investigator's photograph gives some insight into what the scene looked like in the immediate aftermath of an altercation between Kelly Thomas, a homeless man in Fullerton, and police officers on July 5, 2011. (File Photo)

Trial is expected to start next month in Orange County for two ex-Fullerton police officers charged with the fatal beating of a homeless, mentally-ill man. A  third former officer charged in the case will be tried separately.

Former Fullerton Police Department Officer Manuel Anthony Ramos, 39, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and ex-Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 41, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force in connection with the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia.  

Both officers were dismissed from the Fullerton Police Department. 

Jury selection is expected to begin in early November and the trial is scheduled for November 18.

A Friday trial-setting conference scheduled for ex-Fullerton police officer Joe Wolfe, who is expected to go on trial after Ramos and Cicinelli, was rescheduled to January 24. Wolfe faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force in the Thomas beating.

In a videotape of the July 5, 2011 incident at the Fullerton Transportation Station, Wolfe is seen pinning Kelly Thomas on the ground. Thomas is heard during the altercation telling officers he could not breathe.  

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. Three other Fullerton police officers joined Ramos, Cicinelli, and Wolfe, and a violent struggle left Thomas bloodied and unconscious. 

Thomas was taken to a hospital, put on life support and died five days later. 

An autopsy showed that Thomas suffered broken bones in his face and compression injuries to his thorax, which made it hard for him to breathe.  The Orange County Coroner determined he choked to death on his own blood, and the cause of death was listed as asphyxia. 

Thomas was a fixture on the streets of Fullerton and had about 90 documented run-ins with police dating to 1990.

"High Emotions" - No Gavel-to-Gavel TV Coverage

During a pretrial hearing Friday in Santa Ana, Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg ruled that there would be no gavel-to-gavel television coverage of the trial. 

Froeberg said he didn't want to "further inflame high emotions" by allowing complete TV coverage in a case with a "considerable amount of animosity." 

The judge said he didn't want to add to the "explosiveness" of the high profile case. But he will let two pool cameras inside his courtroom, one TV and one still camera, during opening statements and closing arguments, the verdict and sentencing phases of the trial, which is expected to last into 2014.

"Help Me"

Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, a former Orange County Sheriff's Deputy, said he's gearing up for another difficult stretch.   

"Now we're ready for battle, and it's going to completely drain me to go through it all again," said Thomas. "But this is what we're here for - justice for Kelly."

In the video footage, Ramos and Wolfe ask questions of Kelly Thomas. Later, Ramos tells Thomas to “get on the ground now, Get on the ground. Get on the ground.” At that point, a baton strikes Thomas. 

Officer Wolfe: “Take him down, take him down.” 

In the rest of the video, other officers arrive on the scene. Someone tries to subdue Kelly Thomas with a stun gun. 

Thomas: “Please don’t dude. Please.” (Screaming) 
Officer Wolfe: “Roll over on your stomach.” 
(Screaming and continuous stun gun sounds.) 

In the transcript, Kelly Thomas’ last words at the scene are “Help me.” 

Ron Thomas said seeing the videotape during the trial that he's seen many times "will open up the wounds again." 

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.

The trial is expected to last into 2014.

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