SANTA ANA (Reuters) - A judge ordered two California policemen on Tuesday to stand trial on homicide charges in the death of a schizophrenic homeless man who was beaten and repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by a group of officers last July.
The fatal confrontation between police in Fullerton, southeast of Los Angeles, and 37-year-old Kelly Thomas was caught on videotape and touched off a series of protests in the city.
One clip of the beating, released by prosecutors this week and shown 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 Taser shocks.
Officer Manuel Ramos, 38, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and faces a maximum penalty of 15 years to life in prison if found guilty.
The second officer, Corporal Jay Cicinelli, 40, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and the use of excessive force. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted. Both policemen have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors said the pair, who approached 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 drifter his life in what represented a flagrant abuse of authority.
“They have uniforms, bases, they carry the guns, Tasers. It’s awesome power, really. We just have to trust that they follow the law,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukas said at the end of a three-day hearing.
Defense lawyers argued that Thomas started the struggle when he failed to comply with police instructions.
“Kelly Thomas, who has control of this situation, will not cooperate,” Ramos’ attorney, John Barnett countered in describing the scenario from the officers’ point of view.
The two policemen sat motionless and stared straight ahead, showing no emotion, as the judge said he found sufficient evidence to order them tried on all charges. Thomas’ father, a former sheriff’s deputy, fought back tears as his face grew visibly red.
Schwarm said he based his ruling on “the totality of the evidence in this case,” including chilling video of the beating captured by a bus station surveillance camera along with an audio recording picked up from the officers’ radio microphones.
Thomas died five days after the July 5 beating without ever regaining consciousness. Photos of him lying in a hospital bed showed his face, which sustained multiple fractures, bruised, swollen and lacerated beyond recognition.
Both police officers are on unpaid leave and are free on bond. Orange County Superior Judge Walter Schwarm ordered them back to court on May 22 for a formal arraignment.
Prosecutors have declined to bring charges against four other Fullerton police officers involved in the altercation, citing a lack of evidence.
Ron Thomas, the father of the homeless man, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Fullerton, and the FBI was investigating the case.
Reporting by Tori Richards; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston