Crime & Justice

Kelly Thomas Trial: Testimony ends, jurors dismissed for holidays

Former officers Jay Cicinelli (left) and Manuel Ramos have been accused of beating to death mentally ill, homeless man Kelly Thomas.
Former officers Jay Cicinelli (left) and Manuel Ramos have been accused of beating to death mentally ill, homeless man Kelly Thomas.

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On the last day of testimony in the trial of two former Fullerton police officers charged with beating to death a homeless man, prosecutors on Thursday sought to rebut defense assertions that Kelly Thomas died from heart failure, not respiratory failure as prosecutors maintain.

Which opinion on cause of death jurors ultimately embrace is likely to be key in determining the fate of Manuel Ramos, 39, and Jay Cicinelli, 41, who have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Thomas' death. Ramos has also been charged with second-degree murder, and Cicinelli faces an additional charge of excessive force.

Thomas died July 10, 2011 – five days after he was involved in a violent altercation with six police officers, including the defendants, outside the Fullerton Transportation Center.

During the prosecution’s case, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Thomas, Dr. Aruna Singhania, testified Thomas died from a lack of oxygen to the brain as a result of respiratory failure. She said compression on his chest and injuries to his face gradually cut off his air flow.

During their case this week, defense attorneys disputed that finding. They called one witness who testified Thomas admitted to using methamphetamines. And they called a medical expert who said Thomas died from heart abnormalities associated with using the drug. Dr. Steven Karch testified Thomas had an enlarged heart that couldn’t stand the physical exertion he expended during the struggle.

In rebuttal, prosecutors on Thursday called Dr. Anthony Juguilon who heads the pathology team at the Orange County Coroner's office. 

Juguilon told jurors he agreed with the conclusions of the autopsy that prolonged compression on Thomas' chest and blunt facial injuries - especially a nose fracture – cut off his air flow and resulted in asphyxia. That's when the brain and organs don't get enough oxygen. 

He said the autopsy showed evidence of compression including contusions on the left side of Thomas' chest and abdomen.

Juguilon didn't conduct Thomas' autopsy. He said he reviewed records from the procedure and the surveillance videotape of Thomas' altercation with police.

In the tape, Juguilon said, Thomas can be heard saying "I can't breathe" during the struggle. And he said Thomas' labored breathing and diminished speaking ability were consistent with asphyxia. 

Under cross-examination, Juguilon said he agreed with Steven Karch’s opinion that Thomas had had heart disease.

Jurors have been dismissed for a two-week holiday break and are scheduled to return Jan. 6. Closing arguments are expected to begin shortly thereafter.