SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - The trial of two former California policemen charged in the beating and stun gun death of a mentally ill transient began on Monday with opening statements about the deadly confrontation that touched off protests and political upheaval in a Los Angeles suburb.
Prosecutors say the two officers, who approached Kelly Thomas to question him about reports of vandalized cars near a bus depot, turned a routine police encounter into an unnecessary and savage beating that cost the unarmed homeless man his life in what represented a flagrant abuse of authority.
Former Fullerton officer Manuel Ramos, 39, is charged with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the confrontation between Fullerton police officers and 37-year-old Thomas on the night of July 5, 2011.
Jay Cicinelli, a 41-year-old ex-corporal with the Fullerton Police Department, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Defense attorneys were expected to argue that Thomas had a history of violence and resisted the officers’ attempts to detain and question him.
The incident, captured on video, angered residents and led to a series of protests in Fullerton as well as the ouster of three city councilmen in a recall election. The city’s police chief also resigned.
One clip of the beating, aired repeatedly on cable television, showed Thomas lying on the ground screaming, “They’re killing me,” as several officers swarmed over him, delivering multiple blows and shocks.
Last year, 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. A separate lawsuit was brought on the one-year anniversary of the beating by Thomas’ father.
Ramos faces 15 years to life in prison if he is convicted. Cicinelli faces up to four years behind bars.
(This story has been refiled to add dropped first name of Kelly Thomas in second paragraph)
Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bob Burgdorfer