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Video portrays violent death of California homeless man

Published: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 10:36 a.m.CST

SANTA ANA, Calif. (MCT) — On the ground and screaming that he was “sorry,” a shirtless Kelly Thomas is shown being hit again and again with fists, a baton and finally the butt of a stun gun by Fullerton, Calif., police officers in a dramatic video that was shown for the first time Monday in an Orange County courtroom.

The grainy black and white video of Thomas’ violent encounter with police outside a bus depot is the centerpiece of the prosecutions’ case against two officers accused of escalating a standard police encounter with a homeless man into a fatal beating.

At one point, Thomas — a 37-year-old mentally ill homeless man who was a familiar face in the city’s downtown — screams out: “Dad, they are killing me!”

The video and the sound of fists and a baton striking Thomas were so graphic that several spectators left the courtroom and the judge paused the video at one point after some people in the audience began to groan. He cautioned that those who couldn’t stomach the video should leave.

The case has rocked the north Orange County city, where scores of people have protested, staged memorials and even held a recent public birthday celebration for Thomas. During a news conference to announce the charges, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas was brought to tears while discussing the case.

Two officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, are charged in Kelly’s death. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Ramos, 38, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter while Cicinelli, 40, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force in connection with the July 5 beating of Thomas, who died five days later. If convicted, Ramos faces a potential life sentence; Cicinelli could get four years in prison

The video, shot by a security camera at the bus depot, initially captures Thomas being detained by Ramos and Officer Joseph Wolfe, so uncooperative that Ramos appears to grow angry.

“See my fists?” Ramos says.

“Yeah,” Thomas replies. “What about ‘em?”

“They’re getting ready to f — you up,” Ramos says while sliding on a pair of latex gloves. The statements and the menacing act of putting on the gloves, Rackauckas said at the preliminary hearing, set the deadly encounter into motion.

Thomas can be heard repeatedly saying “sorry” as Ramos and Wolfe strike him, instructing him to put his hands behind his back. “I am sorry, dude, I can’t breathe, dude,” he says at one point.

One of the two officers can be seen kneeing Thomas at least once, though some of the activity is obscured by a tree.

“I cannot breathe, man,” Thomas says at another point as Wolfe tells him to relax.

When Cicinelli arrives and tells Thomas to stop resisting, the audio captures the sound of a Taser stun gun clicking rapidly as the homeless man growls in pain, his legs seeming to twitch.

At one point, it appears that Cicinelli raises his arm and smacks Thomas in the face or head with the butt of the Taser.

Cicinelli later says, “we ran out of options so I got the end of my Taser and I probably ... I just smashed his face to hell. He’s on something, dude. ... Three of us couldn’t even control him.”

By the time the confrontation ends, Thomas is lying in a pool of blood. Officers then examine their own wounds as they stand near Thomas, who is handcuffed and on the ground. “You are covered in blood, dude,” one officer can be heard saying to Ramos, who claimed Thomas bit him on the leg.

Cicinelli adds: “He is the one you’re gonna need to look at.”

Thomas suffered brain injuries, a shattered nose, a smashed cheekbone, broken ribs and internal bleeding, according to authorities. But he died of “mechanical compression of the thorax” — his windpipe was crushed.

But attorneys for the two officers sought to portray his medical treatment as the reason for Thomas’ death rather than the officers’ actions.

John Barnett, Michael Ramos’ attorney, asked the fire captain and a trauma surgical chief about whether the initial doctors at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton struggled to insert a tube and clear an airway for him.

“The cause of death might be the treatment he got (at) the hospital?” Barnett asked University of California, Irvine surgical trauma chief Michael Lekawa, seeking to persuade a judge to dismiss a murder and manslaughter charge against his client.

Lekawa acknowledged that he was concerned about medical error until he saw the medical reports and video of the incident.

Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, said the hardest part of the video and audio “is the sounds of my son calling out.”

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