Defense attorneys for the two Fullerton police officers charged in the death of Kelly Thomas on Monday described the homeless man as a violent and dangerous criminal who was combative with officers and provoked them to use force.
The attorneys for Officer Manuel Ramos and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli pushed back Monday against the Orange County district attorney's detailed account of the events that led to Thomas' death, in which prosecutors portrayed Thomas as a defenseless victim of brutality.
Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, said Thomas' criminal record, which includes a 1995 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon when he hit his grandfather with a fire poker, reveals he had a violent side.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Cicinelli's attorney, Michael Schwartz, also disputed points in the district attorney's account, including the number of times his client allegedly hit Thomas with the front end of his Taser and the threatening taunt that Ramos allegedly used when he confronted Thomas: "See my fists? They are getting ready to f-- you up."
Ramos, charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, pleaded not guilty Monday. He remains jailed and the judge declined to lower his $1-million bail. Cicinelli pleaded not guilty last week to charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force and was released on $25,000 bail.
Kelly Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, decried the defense attorneys' tactics, insisting his son was not a violent person. The incident they cited occurred 17 years ago, he said, and led to his son's diagnosis of schizophrenia.
"I haven't been afraid of my son ever in my life," he said. The 1995 assault was Thomas' only violent conviction in Orange County.
Attorneys said Thomas struggled with officers, ignored their commands and was warned repeatedly before they resorted to force.
"I believe none of the officers were responsible.... Lethal force was the result of Kelly's actions," Barnett said at a news conference after his client's arraignment, where prosecutors revealed Ramos has been on suicide watch.
Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man, died five days after the July 5 altercation at a bus depot in Fullerton. Thomas, prosecutors contend, was beaten, shocked repeatedly with a stun gun and pummeled with a Taser until he was unconscious.
The coroner determined the cause of death to be asphyxia from chest compression, with head and facial injuries contributing.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said at a news conference last week that Ramos initiated the violence without provocation and that a surveillance video showed Thomas to be acting in "self-defense, in pain and in panic."
But Schwartz said officers used reasonable force to deal with a "combative, violent suspect" who fought with them, kicked, flailed and tried to grab the Taser from his client's hand.
"As an officer, you can't just get up and walk away because the suspect refuses to be handcuffed and fights with you," he said.
Schwartz also disputed the district attorney's statement that Cicinelli hit Thomas eight times in the head and face with the front of the Taser. He said his client struck Thomas only when the homeless man grabbed the hand holding the Taser at least twice.
"The Taser was falling out of his hand," said Schwartz, who said he's watched the video.
Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney's chief of staff, said the video shows Cicinelli struck the homeless man with the Taser before Thomas grabbed for it, and then struck him at least seven additional times.
Schwartz also said that Rackauckas misstated elements of the chronology of events in the video and the threatening words Ramos made to Thomas, which formed the crux of prosecutors' rationale for the murder charge against the veteran cop.
The full quote, Schwartz said, was: "See these fists? They are getting ready to f-- you up if you don't do what I say."
Ramos made the statement simply in an effort to get Thomas to comply with his commands, Barnett said.
Schroeder dismissed that contention.
"No reasonable jury will believe the threat made like that could ever be conditional. It was made in a menacing way," she said. She added, "We know what Ramos meant because he carried it out."
Copyright 2011 - Los Angeles Times
McClatchy-Tribune News Service