By AMY TAXIN and GREG RISLING – Associated PressWriters
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Prosecutors charged one police officer with murder and another with manslaughter Wednesday in the killing of an unarmed, mentally ill homeless man who was pummeled, shocked with a Taser and slammed with the butt of a stun gun in a beating that lasted nearly 10 minutes.
Fullerton Officer Manuel Ramos was charged with one count each of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas after a violent confrontation with officers on July 5, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said at a news conference.
Police Cpl. Jay Cicinelli was charged with one count each of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.
A review of the evidence, including audio from the officers’ body microphones and surveillance video, showed Thomas was acting “in self-defense, in pain and in a state of panic,” Rackauckas said.
“His numerous pleas of ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I can’t breathe,’ ‘Help Dad’ (were) all to no avail. Screams, loud screams, didn’t help,” the prosecutor said.
Lorie Fridell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, said it is highly unusual for a police officer to be charged with murder.
“It is quite appropriate in such cases to hold officers to account,” Fridell said. “Often, however, prosecutors will give officers the benefit of the doubt.”
Citing the video and audio recordings, Rackauckas said Thomas appeared to be cognitively impaired as officers approached him. He was shirtless and wearing just a backpack as Ramos made a show of putting on Latex gloves before ordering him to put his hands on his knees.
“He made two fists with his gloves on, two fists. He lifted his fists in front of Kelly Thomas so he could see them and he said, ‘Now see my fists? They are getting ready to (expletive) you up,’” Rackauckas said. “That’s when it went from a fairly routine investigation, a fairly routine police detention, to an impending beating by an angry police officer.”
Ramos allegedly swung his baton at Thomas but it was unclear if he hit him. The prosecutor said Ramos then chased Thomas, eventually punching him in his ribs and tackling him before holding down his neck and lying on top of Thomas to pin him down.
The coroner listed the cause of death as mechanical compression of the thorax, which made it impossible for Thomas to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen, Rackauckas said. Other injuries to the face and head contributed to the death, the prosecutor said.
Cicinelli, who arrived on the scene later, kneed Thomas twice in the head and used a Taser four times on him as he screamed and yelled in pain, Rackauckas said, adding that Cicinelli hit Thomas in the face eight times with the Taser, and Thomas didn’t respond.
“When Kelly didn’t scream in response to these blows it should have indicated to Cicinelli that Kelly was down and seriously hurt,” he said.
Rackauckas, a longtime prosecutor known for his strong backing of law enforcement, said it was the first time he had filed charges against police officers for excessive force leading to death.
“Police officers have a right to use reasonable force in the performance of a lawful duty but citizens have a right to self-defense, even against the police,” he said.
Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father, cheered as he watched the prosecutor’s news conference on TV with a group of supporters. He later said he was pleased with the charges.
“That’s exactly what I hoped for,” he said in a phone interview. “It makes me feel fantastic that this is happening, it’s the justice we need.”
Still, he said he suffers every day as a result of his son’s death.
Ramos’ attorney, John Barnett, said the charges were unfounded and disputed Rackauckas’ accounts of events. Thomas violently resisted arrest by kicking and swinging at officers, he said, adding that he had seen the same video cited by the prosecutor.
In response to claims that Ramos put on latex gloves and told Thomas he was going to hurt him, Barnett characterized his client’s attempt to get compliance as “the lowest type of force.”
“It was an attempt by the officer to use words not force to get the suspect to do what he’s supposed to do,” Barnett said. “He sought to avoid physical confrontation with words. There was no compliance by Mr. Thomas.”
Bill Hadden, an attorney representing Cicinelli, didn’t immediately return a call for comment. A call to a home number for Ramos rang unanswered.
Arraignment was scheduled later Wednesday.
Six officers were placed on paid administrative leave after the incident that occurred while police were investigating reported vehicle break-ins at a transit hub. The other officers were not charged Wednesday and were not expected to be charged.
Thomas suffered severe head and neck injuries and was taken off life support five days after the incident.
Thomas suffered from schizophrenia and lived on the streets even though he received support from family and friends.
Police said Thomas ran when officers tried to search his bag and a struggle followed when they tried to arrest him for investigation of possession of stolen goods.
Video from a bystander’s cell phone taken from a distance showed parts of the bloody encounter in which Thomas can be heard screaming for his father.
Surveillance video aboard a bus showed agitated passengers telling the driver that officers beat and repeatedly used a stun gun during the arrest.
After the incident, the police chief went on medical leave and the embattled City Council hired a law enforcement expert to investigate Police Department practices.
Incensed community members held demonstrations and started an effort to recall the mayor and two council-members over the incident.
Ron Thomas filed a claim seeking damages from the city.
He has previously released his son’s medical records showing Thomas suffered broken bones in his face, choked on his own blood and was repeatedly shocked with two stun guns.
News reports indicate Cicinelli left the Los Angeles Police Department after losing an eye in 1996 while working as a probationary officer.
Cicinelli, who was 25 at the time, was shot during an on-duty gunfight during a traffic stop less than three weeks after graduating from the Police Academy, according to a 1997 article in the Los Angeles Times.
If convicted of all charges, Ramos could face a maximum sentence of 15 years to life in prison. Cicinelli could face a maximum sentence of four years if convicted.
Associated Press Writers Gillian Flaccus in Orange County and Thomas Watkins and Jeff Wilson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.