SANTA ANA, Calif. – Prosecutors in Orange County, Calif., charged two veteran Fullerton police officers in the death of a mentally ill homeless man, accusing them of a callous cascade of violence against Kelly Thomas as he begged for his life.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas on Wednesday said what began as routine questioning by police devolved into a “beating at the hands of an angry police officer,” with other officers eventually joining in. He stressed that Thomas did not provoke the attack and that all of his movements were purely defensive.
“This never had to happen,” Rackauckas said. “And it never should have happened.”
Rackauckas, a former paratrooper and judge, was unusually animated as he announced the charges, at one point raising his fists like a bar brawler to mimic the alleged actions of one officer.
His account of Thomas’ death was vivid and chilling, and inside his office, onlookers choked back tears and gasped at the details as he spoke. Outside, dozens of supporters of Thomas’ family watched on television monitors and erupted in an audible cheer as the charges were announced.
Officer Manuel Ramos, 37, a 10-year veteran, was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the beating death of Thomas, 37, at a bus depot. If convicted, Ramos could face a life prison term. He remained in jail Wednesday, with his bail set at $1 million.
It is extremely rare for an officer to face murder charges for actions on duty, and Rackauckas said he could not think of another such case in Orange County.
Rackauckas took the unusual step of attending Ramos’ first court appearance. At one point during the hearing, he invited Ron Thomas, who has led a crusade for justice for his son, to address the judge. After the hearing, the father expressed satisfaction that Ramos was facing serious criminal charges.
“He’s wearing handcuffs right now – which is great – for the murder of my son,” he said. “I hope the man is hurting, hurting inside. … I’m completely torn up, but I’m satisfied to an extent.”
A second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 39, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force; Cicinelli faces a maximum prison term of four years. He pleaded not guilty and posted bail of $25,000.