SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Two California police officers escalated a routine encounter with a homeless man into a beating that left him lying unconscious in a pool of blood and caused his death days later, a prosecutor said on Monday.
In opening statements at the officers’ trial, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told jurors in a Santa Ana courtroom that former Fullerton officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were responsible for the death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas in July 2011.
“This entire incident was characterized by example after example of substandard police work, clear violation of policy … and that ultimately caused severe trauma that led to Kelly Thomas’ death,” Rackauckas said.
Thomas, whose family says was schizophrenic, died five days after the violent confrontation with six officers who responded to a call about a man jiggling car door handles in a transit center parking lot.
Ramos, 39, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli, 42, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. Both have been free on bail.
John Barnett, Ramos’ attorney, said Thomas’ long-time drug use led him to have violent outbursts. Barnett said his client had years of experience dealing with homeless people and took the steps he did to protect the public.
“This case is not about a homeless, helpless, harmless mentally ill guy. This case is about a man who made choices in his life, bad choices, that led to his tragic death,” Barnett said in his opening statement.
A third officer will be tried separately on charges of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Three other officers were not charged.
The case fueled months of protests that led to the resignation of the police chief and a recall election in the college town.
The six-week trial promises to re-ignite those passions. A judge has banned family supporters — a loose coalition that calls itself “Kelly’s Army” — from wearing pins and T-shirts that might inflame the jury. The district attorney’s office plans to use Twitter daily to update the public on its case.