Crime & Justice

Kelly Thomas trial update: Wrongful death civil trial begins

Ron Thomas' son Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by Fullerton police officers in 2011. He's suing those officers and the city for wrongful death.
Ron Thomas' son Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by Fullerton police officers in 2011. He's suing those officers and the city for wrongful death.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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What's expected to be a lengthy and emotional trial got underway Monday in the wrongful death lawsuit concerning the beating of Kelly Thomas at the hands of Fullerton police officers. 

The first enormous task will be seating a jury who hasn't already formed opinions about the 2011 beating, caught on surveillance video, and already the subject of a criminal trial that resulted in not-guilty verdicts for the officers involved. 

Those officers are expected to testify for the first time during the civil trial, which is expected to last through February. Ron Thomas, the father of the homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia, is also expected to testify. 

He's the one bringing the suit against the city of Fullerton and three former Fullerton police officers -- Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli, and Joseph Wolfe -- for wrongful death, negligence, and other violations. The lawsuit also names Fullerton police officers James Blatney and Sgt. Kevin Craig including former Fullerton police chief Michael Sellers and former city council member Patrick McKinley.

Ramos, Cicinelli and Wolfe each have their own defense lawyers. Attorney Dana Fox is representing Blatney and Craig.

Kelly Thomas' mother, Cathy Thomas, accepted a $1 million settlement from the city, but Ron Thomas has consistently said he wanted to take his lawsuit to trial. 

On Monday, attorneys made so-called "mini opening statements" to potential jurors.

Attorney Garo Mardirossian representing Ron Thomas gave the pool of about 120 jurors a summary of what happened on July 5, 2011, making sure to describe in detail what Thomas was wearing, and at times, reenacting the dialogue between Ramos and Kelly Thomas.

Mardirossian called the police orders to Kelly Thomas a "ritual of Simon Says," that the homeless man couldn't keep up with. Thomas was left brain dead by police, he said.

"There are rules about (police) force," Mardirossian said. "And we believe they shouldn't have used any force."

During their short statements in court Monday, defense attorneys said they would "embrace the video" that captured the violent struggle between officers and Kelly Thomas. 

Kelly Thomas, 37, was involved in a violent struggle with Fullerton police officers July 2011 after someone called the police department to report Thomas was allegedly casing cars. Thomas died five days later from "mechanical chest compressions" and asphyxia, according to a medical examiner's report.

Former officer Manuel Ramos was charged in 2011 with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter; Jay Cicinelli and Joseph Wolfe faced involuntary manslaughter and excessive force charges but Orange County prosecutors dropped  charges against Wolfe after a jury last year acquitted Ramos and Cicinelli in the criminal trail.

During their short statements in court Monday, defense attorneys said they would "embrace the video" that captured the violent struggle between officers and Kelly Thomas. Ramos' attorney David Lawrence told the potential jurors the video shows Ramos dealing in a "very patient manner with a very uncooperative" person.

Attorneys for Ramos, Wolfe, and an attorney representing the city of Fullerton, as well as Blatney and Craig, said Thomas died of a heart disease and overwhelming exertion.

In a separate hearing Monday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Kirk Nakamura denied the defense team a request to sanction Ron Thomas and place a gag order on him. They argued he violated the court's previous order not to discuss a confidential internal affairs police report  made public in court filings in August.

The report written by outside police auditors for the Fullerton Police Department stated Ramos and Wolfe violated the department's use of force policy when they used their body weight to subdue and arrest Kelly Thomas. However, the report will not be introduced as evidence in the civil case, per judge's ruling.

The pool of about 120 jurors Monday were asked to fill out an questionnaire before leaving court.

After the opening statements, one man, a potential juror in the audience, stood up and told Judge Nakamura he worked at a psychiatric care facility and wouldn't be a fair and unbiased juror on this trial

Finding people in Orange County who have never heard of Kelly Thomas, the criminal case or haven't made up their minds about the incident, will be a difficult task. The video of the beating went viral, sparked protests and drew national attention to how police use force against people with mental illness. 

"It's not going to be that easy but I think people can understand that they have certain biases, but that those biases are going to be checked at the door and that they don't bring that into the courtroom," said Mardirossian.

The judge and attorneys will review questionnaires Tuesday and begin selecting jurors next week. 

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