Fullerton, CA, United States (AHN) – Two veteran Fullerton police officers have been charged in the death of an unarmed mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas, whose fatal beating has sparked protests and prompted an FBI probe.
Manuel Ramos, who served 10 years in the police department, was charged with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, while Jay Cicinelli, a 12-year veteran, faces involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
The charges were announced by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas based on evidence that included two cell phone videos from witnesses, footage from a Fullerton Transportation Center camera, and downloaded information on the use of seven Tasers.
Prosecutors also relied on the coroner’s report, DNA results and the medical records of Thomas, a 37-year-old drifter with schizophrenia.
“Ramos set in motion the events that led to the death,” the district attorney said in a news conference. “His actions were reckless and created a high risk of death or great bodily injury. Cicinelli used excessive force when he assaulted and beat Kelly Thomas, acting recklessly, under the color of authority without lawful necessity. ”
“From what is visible on the video tape, Kelly Thomas’ appeared to be acting in self-defense, in pain, and in panic,” Rackauckas added. “[His] numerous pleas of ‘I can’t breathe, I’m sorry, dad, help me,’ – to no avail…. That is not protecting and serving.”
Both officers, who are on administrative leave, made their first court appearance on Wednesday.
Ramos, 37, remains in custody on $1 million bail. His arraignment was continued to Monday.
Cincinelli, 39, pleaded not guilty and was released on $25,000 bail. He was ordered to appear for a pre-trial hearing on Nov. 4.
The Fullerton Police Department said in a statement it “respects” the district attorney’s decision to charge the officers.
“This has been a tragic event for Kelly Thomas, the Thomas family, the community, the Police Department, and for all of those who are involved,” the agency said. “Your police department remains fully operational, and we will continue to provide police service to our community.”
Thomas died on July 10, five days after being beaten by several officers in the parking lot of the Fullerton Transportation Center.
In the evening of July 5, police had responded to a report of a man looking into car windows and pulling handles of cars in the parking lot.
Ramos and another officer, Joseph Wolfe, arrived first on scene and detained Thomas, who was shirtless and wearing pants with no protrusions, without patting him down for weapons.
According to the district attorney, the two officerswere aware of prior police contact with the drifter and they “behaved in a manner consistent with the belief that Thomas did not pose any risk.”
Thomas was ordered to sit on the curb while Wolfe checked the victim’s backpack, which was found to contain items that belonged to another person.
Prosecutors said that as Wolfe continued to examine the bag, Ramos gave “increasingly aggressive instructions” to Thomas, who “appeared to have cognitive issues and difficulty understanding Ramos’ instructions.”
Ramos had ordered the victim to sit on the curb, put his legs out straight and place his hands on his knees. He later escalated his contact with Thomas from verbal instructions to “physical altercation,” making menacing threats and not asking other officers to reduce their level of force even after Thomas was bleeding and unresponsive.
Thomas had tried to comply with Ramos’ instructions, but he was confused by whether he should stretch his legs or put his hands on his knees. He had asked the officer, “Which is it, dude?” and Ramos had replied, “Both!”
When the victim failed to do both, Ramos threatened him by putting on a pair of Latex gloves, making two fists with his gloves on and saying, “Now see my fists? They are getting ready to f*** you up.”
“Ramos was telling Kelly Thomas that this encounter had changed from a fairly routine police detention into an impending beating at the hands of an angry police officer,” the district attorney explained. “By making this declaration of violence against Kelly Thomas, Ramos instilled in the victim a reasonable fear that his life was in danger by a police officer who wanted to use his fists to F him up.”
During the physical altercation, Ramos did not inform other officers of the threat he made to Thomas. Wolfe and, later, Cincinelli, came to assist, pinning down the victim to the ground with their weight.
Cicinelli kneed Thomas twice in the head, Tased him four times. In addition, he hit Thomas eight times in the head and face with the front end of his Taser.
“When Kelly Thomas did not scream in response to these blows, it should have indicated to Cicinelli that Kelly Thomas was down and seriously injured,” the district attorney said.
After the beating, Fullerton Fire Department paramedics and Thomas was brought to a hospital. He suffered brain injuries, facial fractures and broken ribs. He never regained consciousness and died of asphyxiation due to “mechanical chest compression with blunt cranial-facial injuries sustained during physical altercation with law enforcement.”
The toxicology report showed that Thomas had not taken any illegal drugs nor alcohol when he was beaten.
There is no evidence that Wolfe and three other officers who arrived later at the scene, Kenton Hampton, Kevin Craig, and James Blatney, knowingly participated in the beating. They four are not being charged at this time but remain in paid administrative leave.
Apart from the criminal charges, the Fullerton City Council has hired an outside firm to conduct an independent internal investigation of the police department. The FBI’s civil rights division also has an ongiong probe.