A 37-year-old Fullerton police officer pleaded not guilty today to second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges in
the death of a schizophrenic homeless man, and lost a bid to have his $1-million bail lowered.
Officer Manuel Ramos was one of two officers charged last week in the death of Kelly Thomas, 37, who died after a violent confrontation with six officers responding to reports of car burglaries at the Fullerton Transportation Center on July 5.
Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 39, was arraigned last week on charges of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Erick Larsh's bail ruling for Ramos pleased Thomas' father.
"The decision to leave bail at $1 million is a great thing,'' Ron Thomas said.
Defense attorney John D. Barnett did not suggest a specific amount to
Larsh in asking that Ramos' bail be reduced, arguing that his client is "not a danger to society and he's not a flight risk.'' But he said after the hearing, "I think $100,000 would be appropriate.''
Barnett also gave a glimpse of his defense strategy, saying that Thomas had a history of violence.
"He attacked his grandfather with a poker and choked his mother,'' Barnett said after the hearing. "Less than a year ago, his mom couldn't control him and he was choking her.''
Barnett's comments angered Thomas' father.
"I'm not happy at all about defense attorney Barnett's lies about my son,'' he told reporters. "But I guess that's his job, to degrade my son.''
Ron Thomas downplayed the conflict between son and grandfather, noting it was 17 years ago.
"Did he do what he's accused of doing? Yes, he did, but his grandfather has forgiven him.''
The conflict with his son's grandfather led the family to realize that he had schizophrenia, Ron Thomas said. An Orange County sheriff's deputy called him back then, saying he recognized the symptoms of schizophrenia in Kelly Thomas, the father said.
"He said, 'It looks like your kid needs help, not jail,' '' Ron Thomas said, adding that's when his son first started meeting with psychiatrists and was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Ron Thomas also objects to characterizations that his son was homeless, saying he could always find shelter with his parents, his sister or others.
"He was never homeless. He just didn't want to sleep inside,'' Ron Thomas said. "It's like his sister says, he was a drifter.''
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced the felony charges against the two officers Thursday. No charges were filed against the other four officers involved in Thomas's arrest, but all six officers are on paid administrative leave.
Ramos and Cicinelli turned themselves in after the charges were
announced and appeared in a downtown Santa Ana courtroom that afternoon.
Cicinelli pleaded not guilty, but Ramos' arraignment was postponed until this morning.
Larsh set bail at $25,000 for Cicinelli. He ordered both officers to surrender their weapons, which they did as of Friday.
Cicinelli, who posted bail Wednesday, and Ramos are due back in court
Nov. 4. Ramos is being held in isolation at the Intake Release Center in Santa Ana.
Rackauckas said Ramos, a 10-year Fullerton Police Department veteran, faces up to 15 years to life in prison if convicted. Cicinelli, who left the Los Angeles Police Department on disability after losing an eye in a South L.A. shooting in 1996 and has been on the Fullerton force for 12 years, faces up to four years in prison if found guilty.
According to Rackauckas, Ramos threatened Thomas during the arrest, put on latex gloves and told the man, "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to f--- you up.' Officers then struck Thomas' head and body as he cried out for his father and told them, "I'm sorry,'' the county's top prosecutor said.
"That declaration was the turning point,'' the district attorney said
last week. "That was the defining moment. Ramos was telling Kelly Thomas at that moment that this encounter had changed ... It went from a fairly routine police investigation, a fairly routine police detention, to an impending beating by an angry police officer.''
Cicinelli kneed Thomas twice in the head and used his Taser on the man four times, Rackauckas said, adding that the corporal also hit Thomas in the face with the Taser eight times.
"From what's visible on the videotape, Kelly Thomas appeared to be acting in self-defense, in pain and in a state of panic,'' the district
attorney said. "His numerous pleas of `I'm sorry,' `I can't breathe,' `Help,' `Dad,' all to no avail.
"Screams, loud screams, didn't help,'' Rackauckas said. "Kelly Thomas not responding when the blows to his face occurred—no help—(nor) a growing pool of blood as Kelly Thomas became unresponsive.''
Ultimately, Thomas died because of the force of the officers on his
chest, which made it impossible to breathe, Rackauckas said. He lost
consciousness, slipped into a coma and died when he was taken off life-support five days later.
Ramos' attorney said his client "is not guilty of murder, manslaughter
or any other crime'' and was only trying to "de-escalate'' the situation
when he shook his fists at Thomas.
Ron Thomas doesn't buy that argument.
"If he would have stated, 'Kelly, if you don't comply I'm going to have
to get physical,' then that's legit,'' he said.
The FBI has opened a parallel investigation into whether the officers
violated Thomas' civil rights and the Fullerton City Council has hired an
independent investigator to conduct an internal review of the arrest.
—Paul Anderson, City News Service