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California cop pleads not guilty in homeless man's death

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 9:15 PM EDT, Wed September 21, 2011
Demonstrators hold a moment of silence at a makeshift memorial for Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who died after an altercation with several police officers in Fullerton, California.
Demonstrators hold a moment of silence at a makeshift memorial for Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who died after an altercation with several police officers in Fullerton, California.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A Fullerton police officer pleads not guilty to involuntary manslaughter
  • The charges against him and another officer stem from a homeless man's July beating
  • The officers were put on paid leave after Kelly Thomas died following an arrest
  • Thomas, 37, was a homeless man with schizophrenia

Santa Ana, California (CNN) -- A Fullerton police officer pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of involuntary manslaughter and felony use of excessive force in the beating death of a mentally ill homeless man who died after a police arrest.

Cpl. Jay Patrick Cicinelli was released Wednesday on $25,000 bail, according to his attorney and a spokeswoman for the prosecutor.

Meanwhile, the arraignment of the officer facing more serious charges, Manuel Anthony Ramos, was continued to September 26 at the request of his attorneys. Ramos was being held Wednesday after Orange County Superior Court Judge Erick L. Larsh set his bail at $1 million.

Ramos, who is 37 and a 10-year veteran of the Fullerton police, is charged with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the July beating death of Kelly Thomas, who was unarmed.

Thomas' father, Ron, urged the judge not to reduce Ramos' bail from $1 million because of "the horrible manner in which my son was murdered."

The September 26 court hearing, however, will also review Ramos' bail.

The judge ordered both officers to surrender their guns within 24 hours. He also set a pretrial hearing for Cicinelli on November 4.

The charges were announced Wednesday by the Orange County prosecutor.

The actions of Ramos "were reckless and created a high risk of death and great bodily injury," District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told reporters.

Ramos faces a maximum sentence of 15 years to life if convicted, authorities said. Cicinelli, who is 39 years old and a 12-year Fullerton police veteran, faces a maximum of four years in prison if convicted.

Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia, was beaten by police during an altercation and died five days later. The FBI is also investigating civil rights violations in the case.

Six Fullerton officers, including Ramos and Cicinelli, were put on paid leave after Thomas' death. The case drew widespread attention to the police department of Fullerton, located about 25 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

Since then, two other brutality allegations have been made by men who were allegedly injured by Fullerton police last year, and Officer Kenton Hampton has been placed on paid leave in connection with one of those two complaints, a department spokesman said. Hampton, 41, is a five-year veteran of the Fullerton police, prosecutors said.

The other four officers involved in the Thomas incident -- Hampton, Officer Joseph Wolfe, Sgt. Kevin Craig and Cpl. James Blatney -- were not charged because "the evidence does not show knowing participation in an unlawful act on the part of these officers," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Thomas suffered brain injuries, facial fractures, rib fractures, and extensive bruising and abrasions, the prosecutor's office said.

The Orange County coroner listed the manner of death as a homicide and the cause of death to be "anoxic encephalopathy with acute bronchopneumonia," asphyxia caused by "mechanical chest compression with blunt cranial-facial injuries during physical altercation with law enforcement," prosecutors said.

The toxicology report showed no illegal drugs or alcohol in Thomas' system, prosecutors said.

"The cause of death in this case is mechanical compression of the thorax, making it impossible for Kelly Thomas to breathe normal. In other words, with the chest being compressed, Kelly Thomas was unable to inhale," Rackauckas told reporters. "Over time his brain was deprived of oxygen."

Ramos, who is accused of setting into motion the events that led to Thomas' death, made initial contact with Thomas on July 5 after police received a call about a homeless man looking in car windows and pulling on handles of parked cars, Rackauckas said.

Cicinelli, who arrived at the scene later, is accused of using excessive force when he allegedly assaulted and beat Thomas, "acting recklessly, under the color of authority without lawful necessity," the prosecutor's office said.

Cicinelli is accused of using the front end of his Taser to hit Thomas on the head and face eight times while Thomas was pinned to the ground by other officers and was making no audible sounds, indicating that Thomas was "down and seriously injured," the prosecutor's office said.

Ramos made "a deliberate showing of putting on Latex gloves" in his detention of Thomas, Rackauckas said.

Ramos is accused of making two fists with his gloves still on in front of Thomas, the prosecutor said.

"He lifted his fists to Kelly Thomas and he said, 'You see my fist? Now they're getting to ready to F you up,'" Rackauckas told reporters, using "F" instead of the full profanity.

Rackauckas said Ramos' conduct was unacceptable and "not protecting and serving" the public.

"Ramos had to know that he was creating a situation where Kelly Thomas feared for his life and was struggling to get away from an armed officer who was going to 'F' him up," Rackauckas said.

The district attorney said he viewed a bus depot surveillance video of the beating. The video shows 16 minutes passed from the initial contact by police to the start of the beating and alleged unlawful police conduct, the prosecutor said.

"It's heartrending. It's hard to watch and listen to. It's a person saying he's sorry, calling for his dad and asking for help. He seems to know that it's over just before it is," Rackauckas said of the video.

"Officer Ramos had prior contact with Kelly Thomas and he knew Kelly Thomas and who he was. He was a homeless drifter who frequented that area," Rackauckas said.

In all, prosecutors also reviewed video from two cell phones and bus camera videos, statements by 151 witnesses, police reports written by all six officers, the coroner's report, medical reports, and the batons and Tasers of the officers, Rackauckas said.

Asked about the charged officers' motive, the prosecutor responded: "That's a pretty good question. It just appears from watching the video that the officer became increasingly angered with Kelly Thomas as this goes on."

"Ramos is accused of instructing Thomas to put his legs out straight and place his hands on his knees, but Thomas had difficulty following Ramos' instructions," Rackauckas said in his statement. "Thomas appeared to have cognitive issues."

The physical altercation began at 8:52 p.m. and lasted nine minutes and 40 seconds until Thomas was handcuffed and no longer moving, the prosecutor said.

"Throughout the physical altercation, Thomas struggled, yelled and pleaded, 'I can't breathe,' 'I'm sorry, dude,' 'Please,' 'OK, OK,' 'Dad, dad,' and 'Dad, help me.'

Thomas was severely bleeding but the officers did not reduce their level of force. Throughout the struggle, Thomas' actions were defensive in nature and motivated by pain and fear," the prosecutor added in a written summary of the incident.

Cicinelli is accused of kneeing Thomas twice in the head and using his Taser four times on him, including three times as a "drive stun," or direct application on the skin, for about five seconds each, the prosecutor said. The fourth time was a dart deployment, in which two darts connected to wires are ejected and stick to the skin or clothing, for about 12 seconds.

"Thomas screamed and yelled in pain while being Tased," the prosecutor's summary said.

Cicinelli is accused of using the stun device "unreasonably and unnecessarily" because Thomas was pinned to the ground by several officers and was vulnerable with his head and face exposed, the prosecutors said.

"The biggest shame about this case is the fact that it could have been avoided," Rackauckas said in his statement. "This never had to happen, and it never should have happened."

After announcing the charges during a news conference, Rackauckas held a private meeting with Ron Thomas and his attorney.

After that meeting, Ron Thomas told reporters that he was "very, very happy" with the outcome of the prosecutors' investigation.

"Tony Rackauckas made it very clear that this murder charge will not be reduced," Thomas told reporters. "We came in here expecting the worse and got the best. He's extremely serious about prosecuting to the fullest extent."

CNN's Sandra Endo contributed to this report.

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