SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - A California ex-policeman on trial in the beating death of a mentally ill transient that ignited protests in a Los Angeles suburb acted reasonably and couldn’t have known that “catastrophe was around the corner,” his lawyer said in closing remarks in the case on Wednesday.
Defense attorney John Barnett, who represents former Fullerton policeman Manuel Ramos, said officers believed that 37-year-old Kelly Thomas was dangerous and that they responded according to their training.
Ramos, 39, is on trial for second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the case, while Jay Cicinelli, a 41-year-old ex-corporal with the Fullerton Police, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
Prosecutors accuse the two officers, who approached Thomas near a bus depot on the night of July 5, 2011, to question him about reports of vandalized cars, of turning a routine police encounter into an unnecessary and savage beating that cost the unarmed homeless man his life.
The confrontation was captured on video recording from a nearby bus depot and touched off angry protests in the city of Fullerton, as well as the ouster of three city councilman in a recall election.
On the recording, Ramos is seen strapping gloves on his hands, balling them into fists in Thomas’ face and telling the transient, whom he knew from previous encounters: “You see these fists? They are getting ready to f--- you up.”
Barnett, in his closing statement, dismissed that remark as sarcasm that wasn’t meant to be taken literally and said Ramos was not prepared for the violent melee that would come next.
“Do you think any reasonable person would know that catastrophe was around the corner?” Barnett said, speaking in a packed courtroom in Santa Ana, California.
Taking his turn to speak to the jury, Cicinelli’s attorney, Michael Schwartz, took issue with the closing statement by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, in which the prosecutor urged them to “send a message” to the community by convicting the two former police officers.
“We don’t convict people because of emotion or to send a message,” Schwartz said.
During a break in the proceedings, Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg said he was investigating a photo of the jury that had been posted on Twitter, which he said was a violation of the law.
“I know you may think that I‘m strict and my bailiffs are strict because they are constantly monitoring you, but somebody sent out (a) picture of the jury on Twitter and I‘m going to find out who it is and that person is going to jail,” Froeberg told the courtroom gallery.
Froeberg was expected to turn the case to the jury for deliberations later on Wednesday. If convicted, Ramos could be sent to prison for up to 15 years. Cicinelli faces a maximum of four years behind bars if he is found guilty.
In 2012, Fullerton’s acting chief of police posthumously exonerated Thomas of any wrongdoing in connection with the confrontation, saying he was cleared of suspicion that he did anything to provoke the violent struggle that led to his death.
The city has also agreed to pay $1 million to Thomas’ mother in a negotiated settlement of any claims she might have brought in her son’s death. Thomas’ father filed a separate lawsuit on the one-year anniversary of the beating.
Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Osterman