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Kelly Thomas: Two Officers Ordered To Stand Trial For Homeless Man's Death (UPDATED)

By AMY TAXIN 05/09/12 08:47 PM ET AP

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Two Southern California police officers were ordered Wednesday to stand trial in the death of a mentally ill homeless man following a violent arrest last summer.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm made the ruling after a hearing that included surveillance video of the confrontation between the officers and 37-year-old Kelly Thomas in the city of Fullerton.

Officer Manuel Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and assault or battery by a public officer. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The officers confronted Thomas while responding to reports that a homeless man was looking into parked cars at a transit center.

"This is another victory, on another battle," said Thomas' father, Ron. "We're going to start a new one with the trial."

John Barnett, Ramos' attorney, said he would seek another court's review of Schwarm's ruling and did not expect his client would end up facing a jury trial.

"We're disappointed that they were held to answer but we will seek review in an appropriate manner," he told reporters after the ruling. "He believes, and he is innocent."

A message was left for Michael Schwartz, Cicinelli's attorney, seeking comment on the ruling.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said during the hearing that Ramos' actions – snapping on latex gloves, making a fist and threatening to take on Thomas – would have led anyone to fear they were about to get beaten by police.

"Any person, any creature on this earth would have fear at that point," Rackauckas told the court.

"You're going to fight or flee because this is an imminent threat of a serious beating by a police officer who is there with a baton and a gun and other police officers.... This is going to be a very bad deal," the prosecutor said.

Defense attorneys countered that police – who are authorized and trained to use force when necessary – viewed the incident as an encounter with a man who refused to give his name and continued to resist arrest even as multiple officers rushed to assist.

The three-day hearing was marked by repeated showing of clips from surveillance video and audio recordings of the confrontation. The footage includes scenes of officers pummeling and pinning down Thomas as he screams that he can't breathe and moans for his father until he goes silent and is taken away by medics, leaving behind a pool of blood.

Barnett, Ramos' attorney, said during the hearing that the video – which was introduced by the prosecution – shows that his client made a conditional threat during his conversation with Thomas, stating he wanted the man to start listening and following police orders, such as sitting with his legs stretched out and providing his name to officers.

"All that Kelly Thomas had to do was simply comply," Barnett said. "Officer Ramos just lifts him up, he's going to arrest him. ... Not only can he do it, he must do it. He is bound to do it."

"Officer Ramos didn't do anything that should or could kill Kelly Thomas," Barnett said, pointing out that his client is often seen on the video at the man's feet.

Prosecutors have argued that Ramos punched Thomas in the ribs, tackled him and lay on him to hold him down while Cicinelli – who arrived later on the scene – used a Taser four times on Thomas as he hollered in pain and 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.

The coroner's office found that Thomas died from compression of his chest that made it difficult for him to breathe and deprived his brain of oxygen, and facial injuries stemming from his confrontation with law enforcement.

In court, Schwartz, Cicinelli's attorney, challenged those findings, noting that testimony by a paramedic who treated Thomas at the scene indicates that Thomas was breathing, although with difficulty, during the confrontation.

Schwartz also defended his client's use of the Taser on Thomas, who was still struggling and resisting officers' efforts to handcuff him, and said Cicinelli only swung the Taser at Thomas' hand when the man made an effort to grab the weapon.

"To call that a crime is to effectively handcuff our police officers out in the field from dealing with any combative suspect," Schwartz said.

The hearing in a Santa Ana courtroom was marked by lengthy testimony from medical experts and graphic photos of Thomas' injuries, including multiple bruises and a bloodied eye, while he was lying on the autopsy table.

Attorneys repeatedly played portions of the grainy surveillance video, which was paired with audio from digital recorders worn by some of the officers who were present and which brought some of Thomas' supporters to tears and prompted them to leave the courtroom.

The incident last July prompted 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.

The recall was sparked after angry residents chastised the council members for failing to take significant action regarding the incident.

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  • Kelly Thomas

    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 & Ron Thomas

    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

    Elisha Beulah, 33, right, cries by a memorial for Kelly Thomas, 37, on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011, in Fullerton, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Kelly Thomas Supporters

    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)

  • Kelly Thomas Supporters

    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

    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 & Mayor Richard Jones

    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)

  • Medical Records

    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

    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)

  • District Attorney Tony Rackauckas

    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)

  • Cpl. Jay Cicinelli

    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)

  • Officer Manuel Ramos

    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)

  • Cicinelli & Ramos

    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)

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Filed by Anna Almendrala  |