U.S.
5:17 pm
Thu May 10, 2012

Cops To Stand Trial In Homeless Man's Beating Death

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 8:50 pm

Two police officers in the Southern California town of Fullerton have been ordered to stand trial for the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man.

Thomas died in July 2011 from injuries sustained during a violent arrest by six Fullerton officers.

The night of the arrest, Fullerton police officer Manual Ramos approached Thomas, then 37, while responding to a call that someone had been peering into cars at the town's bus depot.

The surveillance video at the depot was running during the incident, and officer Ramos was also recorded by a device he was wearing on his uniform. Synced together, the audio and video formed the key evidence shown in court this week during a preliminary hearing to decide whether to bring the officers to trial.

A Disturbing Video

Thomas, shirtless and sporting a full beard the night of the arrest, was a well-known fixture at the bus depot.

In the video, Ramos approaches Thomas and tells him repeatedly to extend his feet in front of him and to put his hands on his knees.

After several minutes, the recordings show a visibly annoyed Ramos slowly putting on latex gloves and, using expletives, threatening Thomas with his fists.

The confrontation escalates, and Thomas is seen trying to run from Ramos, who hits him with a baton. Soon after, another officer assists Ramos, as Thomas apologizes and insists that he can't breathe.

In all, six officers tried to subdue Thomas, who is heard in the recording crying for help and for his father.

Thomas died five days later after being taken off life support.

The judge reviewing the evidence this week halted proceedings as audience members gasped and cried out as the video was screened.

Outside the courtroom, Kelly's father, Ron Thomas, says the recording is too difficult to watch.

"To hear Kelly, in his screams for me to save him fade away ... that haunts me every day, it haunts me every night," Ron Thomas says.

Thomas says those haunting cries have pushed him to seek justice for his son.

For weeks last year, dozens of supporters rallied in front of Fullerton's police headquarters demanding that the officers be prosecuted. Under pressure, the chief of police took a medical leave of absence, then resigned, and three City Council members have been targeted for recall.

An Unprecedented Charge

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas personally presented much of the case in court this week and took the extraordinary step of charging Ramos with second degree murder.

Officer Jay Cicinelli faces lesser charges, including involuntary manslaughter.

Ramos' defense attorney John Barnett says his client did not use excessive force and, as a police officer, had every legal right to threaten a suspect who wouldn't follow orders.

"I just do not believe that a conditional threat to use force can support a murder conviction," Barnett says.

Barnett adds that in the video, Ramos is only seen holding down Thomas' legs.

Ramos is the first officer in Orange County to ever stand trial for murder committed while on duty. Legal experts say the prosecution will have a difficult time winning a murder conviction.

'A Wake-Up Call'

For their part, mental health advocates say this case — and most important, the video of the incident — has brought much needed attention to the mistreatment of the mentally ill.

"I think that this video will certainly be a wake-up call for law enforcement," says Rusty Selix, executive director of the Mental Health Association of California. He compares the case to the 1991 video taken of officers beating Rodney King.

"I think every law enforcement unit will want to think about, 'Gee, are we ready? Would we have responded the same way?' " Selix says.

Defense attorney Barnett says he'll appeal the decision to go to trial. He says he is confident his client will be acquitted.

Barnett defended one of the officers charged in the Rodney King beating. That officer was found not guilty.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. In Southern California, two police officers have been ordered to stand trial for the death of a mentally ill homeless man. Kelly Thomas died from injuries sustained during a violent arrest by six officers.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that Thomas' death has shocked the city of Fullerton.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's been almost a year since 37-year-old Kelly Thomas was approached at the Fullerton bus depot by police officer Manuel Ramos. Thomas, shirtless and sporting a full beard, was a well-known homeless fixture there. Officer Ramos was responding to a call that someone had been peering into cars at the depot.

MANUEL RAMOS: Put your feet out in front of you.

KELLY THOMAS: (Unintelligible).

RAMOS: (Unintelligible).

THOMAS: (Unintelligible).

RAMOS: Well, you're going to have to (unintelligible) real quick.

KAHN: The surveillance video at the bus depot was running and Officer Ramos was recorded by a device he was wearing on his uniform. He tells Thomas repeatedly to put his feet out in front of him. The audio and video synched together was the key evidence shown in court this week during a preliminary hearing to decide whether to bring the officers to trial.

As a warning, both the video and audio are disturbing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)

KAHN: After several minutes, a visibly annoyed Ramos slowly puts on latex gloves and, using expletives, threatens Thomas with his fists. The confrontation escalates and Thomas is seen trying to run from Ramos, who hits him with a baton. Soon after, another officer assists.

THOMAS: (Unintelligible) I'm sorry, dude. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

KAHN: In all, six officers try to subdue Thomas, who is heard crying for help and for his dad.

THOMAS: Dad, Dad. No.

KAHN: The judge viewing the evidence this week halted proceedings as audience members gasped and cried out during the viewing of the video. Outside the courtroom, Kelly's father, Ron Thomas, says it's too much to watch.

RON THOMAS: To hear Kelly and his screams for me to save him fade away, that haunts me every day. It haunts me every night.

KAHN: And Thomas says it's pushed him to seek justice for his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

KAHN: For weeks last year, dozens of supporters rallied in front of Fullerton's police headquarters demanding the officers be prosecuted. Under pressure, the chief of police took a medical leave of absence then resigned. The county district attorney personally presented much of the case in court this week and took the extraordinary step of charging Officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder. Officer Jay Cicinelli faces lesser charges.

Ramos' defense attorney, John Barnett, says his client did not use excessive force and had every legal right as a police officer to threaten a suspect who wouldn't follow orders.

JOHN BARNETT: I just do not believe that a conditional threat to use force can support a murder conviction.

KAHN: Legal experts say prosecutors do have a tough job to convict a cop of murder. Ramos is the first officer in Orange County to ever stand trial for murder committed while on duty.

For their part, mental health advocates say this case - and most importantly, the video - has brought much-needed attention to the mistreatment of the mentally ill.

RUSTY SELIX: I think that this video will certainly be a wake-up call for law enforcement.

KAHN: Rusty Selix of the Mental Health Association of California says it's just like the video taken of cops beating Rodney King.

SELIX: I think every law enforcement unit will want to think about, gee, are we ready? You know, would we have responded the same way?

KAHN: Officer Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, says he'll appeal the decision to go to trial and says he's confident his client will be acquitted. Barnett defended one of the officers charged in the Rodney King beating. That officer was found not guilty.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.