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SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - Two former policemen were acquitted on Monday in the 2011 beating and stun-gun death of a mentally-ill California homeless man that touched off street protests and political upheaval in the Los Angeles suburb of Fullerton.
Ex-Fullerton police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were found not guilty of all charges linked to the death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas following a month-long trial, according to a spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney.
The eight-woman, four-man jury deliberated for less than two days before returning the verdicts in a packed Santa Ana, California, courtroom.
Orange County Sheriff's deputies cruised the streets surrounding the courthouse in Santa Ana in patrol cars and motorcycles as about 50 protesters gathered outside. A helicopter hovered overhead as the verdict was read.
No incidents were reported by early evening, and jurors left the courthouse following the verdict without speaking to reporters.
Prosecutors had accused the two officers, who approached Thomas near a bus depot in July 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.
Attorneys for Ramos and Cicinelli argued that Thomas was dangerous and that the officers responded according to their training. Defense lawyers also said Thomas suffered from a weakened heart brought on by drug abuse.
"These peace officers were doing their jobs, operating as they were trained," said John Barnett, who represented Ramos. "There was no malice in their hearts that night."
Ramos, 39, was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the case. Cicinelli, a 41-year-old ex-corporal, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
"I'm just so frustrated. So disgusted. It's horrible, just horrible," Thomas' father, Ron, said immediately following the verdict.
Protesters quickly gathered outside the courthouse, some carrying signs that read, "Police the Police" and "No More Killer Cops." Drivers honked their horns in support as they passed on nearby streets.
"We respect the jury's verdict, and appreciate the consideration the jury gave to the evidence. We understand that there may be a wide variety of reactions to the verdict and encourage anybody who wishes to express their feelings to do so respectfully," Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes said.
The confrontation between six Fullerton police officers and Thomas was captured by a surveillance camera at the bus station and led to demonstrations in the community, as well as the ouster of three city council members in a recall election.
On the videotape, Ramos is seen strapping gloves on his hands, balling them into fists in Thomas's face and telling Thomas, whom he knew from previous encounters: "You see these fists? They are getting ready to f--- you up."
Near the end of the tape, Thomas can be heard screaming for help as police officers swarm over him, delivering multiple blows and shocks with a stun gun. At one point he can be heard calling for his father to help him, yelling: "Daddy, they're killing me."
Ex-Fullerton police officer Thomas Wolfe was also indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force in the case in September and was awaiting trial.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said after the acquittals that charges against Wolfe would now likely be dropped. Three other officers involved in the confrontation with Thomas have not been charged.
Rackauckas had asked jurors to speak as the voice and conscious of the community and "send a message" by convicting the officers.
"He felt like he went before a jury and the jury has spoken. He's obviously disappointed in the verdict and his heart goes out to Ron and Cathy Thomas," a spokeswoman for Rackauckas said. "He thought it was a fair trial and that under the same circumstances he'd have brought the same charges."
In 2012, Fullerton's acting chief of police posthumously exonerated Thomas of any wrongdoing in connection with the confrontation, saying he was cleared of any suspicion that he provoked the violent struggle that led to his death.
The city has also agreed to pay $1 million to Thomas's mother in a negotiated settlement of any claims she might have brought in her son's death. Thomas's father filed a separate lawsuit on the one-year anniversary of the beating.
Reporting by Dana Feldman and Dan Whitcomb; Writing by Dan Whitcomb and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Lisa Shumaker, Cynthia Osterman, Eric Walsh and Ken Wills