SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A bloody beating by police that left a California homeless man dead began when one of the officers on trial in his death grew frustrated with his evasiveness, snapped on a pair of latex gloves and told him, "'See these fists? They're getting ready to (expletive) you up,'" a prosecutor said Monday.
The warning came after the officer, Manuel Ramos, had bantered with Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old mentally ill man, for about 13 minutes while investigating a call that Thomas had been tampering with cars at a Fullerton transit center, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukas told jurors in his opening statement at the trial.
"There was a change at this point, a significant change for the worse,* Rackauckas said. "This was the turning point where Ramos went from casual to malicious."
Ramos, 39, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and is the first officer charged with murder for on-duty actions in the history of Orange County. Jay Cicinelli, 41, has pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.
Much of the incident was captured on surveillance tape and audio recordings from officers' body microphones that promise to be the centerpiece of the trial.
Thomas, whose family says was schizophrenic, died five days after the July 5, 2011, confrontation with six officers.
Moments after Ramos and Thomas began struggling, Cicinelli used a Taser on Thomas and hit him eight times in the face and head with the blunt end of the stun gun, prosecutors say.
In court, Rackauckas showed jurors a photo of the Taser, covered in blood, and the blood-soaked sidewalk where Thomas had struggled with police.
"He's pinned to the ground, he's face up, the back of his head is on the pavement and so there's no give there. Cicinelli repeatedly pummeled Kelly in the face, without mercy. In his own words, Cicinelli said that he 'smashed his face to hell,'" Rackauckas said. "Kelly didn't really last very long after that. He continued to cry out to his dad for help, he pleaded for mercy, he kept crying out that he couldn't breathe."
John Barnett, a defense attorney for Ramos, painted a different picture of the encounter.
The trial is not about "some bully cop who beat a homeless person to death," Barnett said during his opening statement. "This case is not about a homeless, helpless, harmless mentally ill guy. This case is about a man who made choices in his life — bad choices — that led to his tragic death."
Thomas had been taking methamphetamines since the 10th grade that caused him to have spontaneous, violent outbursts, Barnett told jurors.
He said Thomas' history of violence included attacking his 73-year-old grandfather with a fireplace poker in 1995 and trying to choke his mother, who took out a restraining order against him. Thomas was convicted of assault in the 1995 case, Barnett said.
Ramos' threat to harm Thomas with his gloved fists was conditional — only if he didn't start listening — and it was clear Thomas didn't take him seriously because he replied, "'Start punching, dude,'" Barnett said.
A desperate struggle followed, with police officers fearing for their safety, Barnett said. They were so overpowered that they called a "Code 3" — an emergency call for all available officers to respond — three times as they tried to wrestle Thomas into handcuffs, he said.
"That means officers are in trouble. That means, we're losing this fight," Barnett said. "The amount of force they were using was not only not too much, it wasn't enough."
Cicinelli's attorney was expected to give his opening statement later in the day.
Thomas, who some called "Crazy Kelly," was familiar to police and known around town for his disheveled red beard and erratic behavior.
Ramos had been called on seven previous occasions to remove him from private property, and Thomas had been written up for trespassing, urinating in a fountain and vandalism, among other things, according to court documents.
A third Fullerton officer will be tried separately. Three other officers involved in the incident were not charged.
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