Crime & Justice

Kelly Thomas: A look back at the police brutality case as a civil trial gets underway

Footage from a security camera that shows much of the July 5, 2011 altercation between Fullerton police officers and Kelly Thomas at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
Footage from a security camera that shows much of the July 5, 2011 altercation between Fullerton police officers and Kelly Thomas at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
Pool/Getty Images

A wrongful death civil trial began Monday over the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man known to have mental health issues who died following a violent altercation with Fullerton police in 2011.

The 2011 incident and the emotional trial that followed sparked protests and discussion about police treatment of the homeless and mentally ill in Orange County.

Attorneys will question and select jurors from a pool of approximately 120 people starting on Nov. 16. Meeting just three days a week, the civil court case is expected to last through February.

As the new trial gets underway, we offer a look back at the incident and the case that followed. KPCC's Erika Aguilar will be following the trial. 

Timeline | Surveillance video | KPCC coverage

What happened? 

On July 5, 2011, Fullerton police responded to a call reporting a man looking into the windows of parked cars at the Fullerton Transportation Center. There they found Thomas, who they suspected of trying to break into the cars. 

A 34-minute, quickly-escalating altercation ended with Thomas unconscious, with several fractured ribs as well as damage to his lungs, liver, pancreas and gallbladder. He was taken off life support several days later.

Street surveillance video of the altercation between police and Thomas was a key part of the criminal trial. You can watch it below. Warning: it contains graphic images and language.

Video: Kelly Thomas surveillance video

The trial

In the criminal trial that followed, the officers who were being tried — Jay Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos — were acquitted of beating Thomas to death. Cicinelli was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force, while Ramos was found not guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

A third officer, Joseph Wolfe, was indicted by a grand jury, but the Orange County District Attorney's Office declined to press charges after Cicinelli and Ramos were acquitted.

All three officers were fired, but have attempted to get their jobs back.

The internal report

A confidential report from Fullerton Police's Internal Affairs Department found that the three former  officers violated the department's policies when attempting to detain Thomas. The report, which was written by independent police auditors, wasn't admissible in a previous criminal trial because officers were compelled to provide testimony for the report. It became public when it was filed as evidence in the civil case.

The report said that Cicinelli violated deadly force policy when he kneed Thomas twice in the head and beat him in the face with his Taser "multiple times." Ramos and Wolfe were found to have violated policy when they used their body weight to subdue and arrest Thomas.

The Timeline

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