SANTA ANA, Calif. — A trauma surgeon said Tuesday that continuous compression of a California homeless man's chest during a confrontation with police officers caused breathing problems that led to his death.
The testimony by Dr. Michael Lekawa came during a hearing in response to intense questioning by attorneys for two Fullerton police officers charged with killing 37-year-old Kelly Thomas during an investigation of a reported car burglary at a transit hub last July.
Lekawa noted that surveillance video and audio recordings of the incident showed that Thomas' voice changed from initial shouts of "I can't breathe" to long, drawn-out moans before he stopped talking altogether.
Lekawa, chief of trauma surgery at University of California, Irvine Medical Center – where Thomas was taken after the confrontation – said he believes the incident caused Thomas' respiratory problems, which deprived his brain of oxygen.
"The ongoing compression of his chest ultimately led him to have a respiratory arrest," Lekawa said during the hearing to determine whether sufficient evidence exists for the officers to stand trial.
Prosecutors contend that Officer Manuel Ramos punched Thomas in the ribs, tackled him and lay on him to pin him down. They say Cpl. Jay Cicinelli used a Taser four times on Thomas as he screamed in pain and also hit him in the face eight times with the Taser.
Thomas lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital. He was taken off life support and died five days later.
Ramos, a 10-year-veteran of the Fullerton Police Department, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli, who has worked in Fullerton since 1999, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The officers' attorneys grilled Lekawa over whether sufficient compression took place during the confrontation to cause respiratory arrest and whether cardiac arrest – triggered by extreme exertion – might have deprived Thomas' brain of oxygen.
Defense attorney Michael Schwartz, who represents Cicinelli, also asked whether performing CPR – as medics did when Thomas' heart rate stopped that night – for a long period of time might cause the problems that led to Thomas' death.
Lekawa said he supposed CPR compressions could lead to some of the conditions. But earlier he testified that he believed Thomas' problems began earlier, when the video showed he was no longer responsive.
The questioning came in the second day of the hearing in a Santa Ana courtroom and was marked by a repeated showing of clips of the grainy surveillance video of the confrontation, which was paired with audio from digital recorders worn by some of the officers who were present.
The video, screened in public for the first time, shows Ramos and another officer swing their batons at a shirtless Thomas and pin him to the ground as he pleads with them to stop. It later shows Thomas being hit repeatedly with a Taser while he screamed.
"We ran out of options so I got the end of my Taser and I probably ... I just start smashing his face to hell," Cicinelli commented to fellow officers on the 33-minute surveillance tape, according to a transcript provided by prosecutors because parts of the recording were muffled. "He was on something. Cause the three of us couldn't even control him."
Prosecutors say the July 5 beating began after two officers responded to reports that a homeless person was looking in cars and rattling door handles at the Fullerton transit hub, where numerous buses come and go and commuters park their cars.
Six Fullerton officers were involved in the conflict but only two were criminally charged.
Thomas' father Ron Thomas said the video shows there was no struggle while his son was on the ground being kneed by officers who huddled over him. He also voiced frustration that defense attorneys were challenging the medics in what he said was an effort to deflect responsibility from the officers.
The incident led to an ongoing FBI investigation to determine if Thomas' civil rights were violated, an internal probe by the city, protests by residents and an effort to recall three Fullerton councilmembers that is slated for next month's ballot.
This 1998 family photo provided by the Thomas family shows Kelly Thomas, who died after a confrontation with police officers in Fullerton, Calif. on July 5, 2011. The Fullerton police department had no intent to deceive the public by releasing an old booking photo of Thomas or information about officers' potential injuries from the confrontation, an independent consultant said Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Thomas Family, File)
Cathy Thomas and Ron Thomas, parents of Kelly Thomas, stand next to a memorial for their son on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011, in Fullerton, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Elisha Beulah, 33, right, cries by a memorial for Kelly Thomas, 37, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011, in Fullerton, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Demonstrators wait for Orange County, Calif., District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, to announce that two police officers will be charged in the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, at a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
People protest outside the police station in Fullerton, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, over the killing of Kelly Thomas, the homeless schizophrenic man who died after being beaten by Fullerton police during a violent arrest in July. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Cathy Thomas, left, mother of Kelly Thomas, the homeless schizophrenic man who died after being beaten by Fullerton police officers during a violent arrest in July, shakes hands with Fullerton police officers who barricaded a street to make room for a protest Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, in Fullerton, Calif. Six officers who were trying to search Thomas' backpack July 5 after reports of break-ins at a Fullerton transit hub got into a violent fight with the 37-year-old. He later died of severe head and neck injuries. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly Thomas, left, says goodbye to City of Fullerton Mayor Richard Jones after a meeting Wednesday Aug. 17, 2011 in Fullerton, Calif. The Fullerton City Council had just approved the hiring of a law enforcement consultant to investigate the death of Kelly thomas, a mentally ill homeless man after a violent confrontation with police that sparked outrage and protests by residents. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Computer-generated images based on Kelly Thomas' medical records are shown at a news conference, displayed by his father, Ron Thomas, Wednesday Sept. 7, 2011 in Los Angeles, allegedly showing Kelly Thomas had multiple broken bones in his face and cracked ribs. The family of the mentally ill man, Kelly Thomas, who died following a violent confrontation with six Fullerton police officers, has released his medical records, alleging he died of blunt head trauma that led to brain death. (AP Photo /Nick Ut)
Ron Thomas, center, father of Kelly Thomas, walks into the court to speak before the judge during the arraignment hearing for Fullerton Police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli in Orange County Superior Court on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 in Santa Ana, Calif. Prosecutors charged one police officer with murder and another with manslaughter in the killing of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, 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. Ramos was charged with one count each of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli was charged with one count each of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. (AP Photo/Paul Rodriguez)
Orange County, Calif., District Attorney Tony Rackauckas clenches his fists to demonstrate how one officer threatened a homeless man, as he announces that two police officers will be charged in the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, at a news conference in Santa Ana, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Fullerton, Calif., police Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, left, and officer Manuel Ramos, right rear, are led away after being arraigned on charges in the death of a homeless man, Kelly Thomas, in Superior Court in Santa Ana, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Cicinelli was charged with one count each of involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. (AP Photo/Paul Rodriguez, Pool)
Fullerton, Calif., police officer Manuel Ramos is led away after he and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, not shown, are arraigned on charges in the death of a homeless man, Kelly Thomas, in Superior Court in Santa Ana, Calif., Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. Ramos was charged with one count each of second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Thomas after a violent confrontation in Fullerton on July 5. (AP Photo/Paul Rodriguez, Pool)
This combo made from file photos provided by the Orange County District Attorney's office shows Fullerton Police Officers Jay Cicinelli, left, and Manuel Ramos. A judge on Monday, May 7, 2012 will weigh whether there's enough evidence to try the two officers, who are 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. (AP Photo/Orange County District Attorney, File)