Crime & Justice

Kelly Thomas Trial: Defense rests case after four days of testimony (Update)

A surveillance video shows the July 5, 2011, altercation between Fullerton police and Kelly Thomas.
A surveillance video shows the July 5, 2011, altercation between Fullerton police and Kelly Thomas.
Joshua Sudock/Orange County Register, Pool Photo

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Defense attorneys Wednesday rested their case in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers accused of beating to death a mentally ill, homeless man two years ago. 

Their final witness was a forensic pathology consultant. He testified that psychosis and a weak, enlarged heart brought on by years of drug abuse led to the death of Kelly Thomas, 37, who died five days after he was involved in a violent struggle with six police officers, including the defendants.

Manuel Ramos, 39, and Jay Cicinelli, 41, have been charged with involuntary manslaughter, with Ramos facing an additional count of second-degree murder.  Cicinelli  is also charged with using excessive force in the July 2011 altercation between Thomas and police outside the Fullerton Transportation Center.

The Orange County Coroner's Office ruled Thomas died from a lack of oxygen to the brain brought on by "mechanical compression" to the chest and injuries to the head and face. Defense attorneys have disputed that finding, and on Wednesday they called Dr. Steven Karch to the witness stand. 

Under questioning from Cicinelli's attorney, Michael Schwartz, Karch said he was a medical consultant who specializes in heart and forensic toxicology issues. He said he has worked as an emergency room physician and has researched drug-related psychosis and the effects of methamphetamine use on the brain and heart. 

He said he looked at coroner's slides of Thomas' heart and said it appeared to have been enlarged based on evidence of swollen tissue. 

Karch said enlarged hearts are typical in users of methamphetamine and said the condition increases the risk of coronary artery disease and premature death. 

He said the drug can cause what he called "myocardial remodeling" in which the cells of the heart take on an abnormal appearance. 

Karch said he reviewed coroner's and medical records and concluded that Thomas' death was caused by "methamphetamine cardiomyopathy" or an abnormally enlarged heart. He also said it appeared Thomas had been experiencing a psychotic episode during his altercation with police, evidenced by his actions in a surveillance video tape of the incident. Karch said a history of methamphetamine use can lead to psychosis. 

Under questioning by Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, Karch said separate instances in which Thomas grabbed his mother by the throat and beat his grandfather with a fireplace poker are consistent with drug-related psychosis.

Karch capped four days of defense testimony that was intended to show that Thomas had a history of violence and that officers involved in the altercation acted appropriately in the face of what they perceived as a threat from a dangerous and mentally unstable man.

Prosecutors are expected to call rebuttal witnesses Thursday before Judge William Froeberg recesses the trial for the holidays.

Closing arguments are expected the week of Jan. 6.