Doctor: Chest compression led to Kelly Thomas' death
Medical conclusion came after performing an autopsy, reviewing records and tests and watching surveillance audio and video
By Amy Taxin
SANTA ANA, Calif. — Kelly Thomas' body lay on the table in the coroner's office, his closed eyes dark purple, his left arm and side covered with bruises — some that a pathologist said stemmed from a violent confrontation with police officers just five days before.
The 37-year-old homeless man died from facial injuries, including blood in his nose, and mechanical compression to his chest that made it difficult for him to breathe and deprived his brain of vital oxygen, said Dr. Aruna Singhania, a forensic pathologist for Orange County.
Singhania said she reached her conclusion after performing an autopsy, reviewing medical records and tests and watching surveillance audio and video of a group of police officers pummeling and pinning down the man as he screamed.
"The body is one, so they are all combined together," Singhania said of her findings. She also said Thomas had pneumonia, apparently stemming from his being on a respirator after the incident.
The doctor's testimony came on the second day of a preliminary hearing in a Santa Ana courtroom to determine whether sufficient evidence exists for two Fullerton police officers involved in the incident to stand trial for killing Thomas.
Prosecutors say the July 5 incident began after officers responded to reports that a homeless person was looking in cars and rattling door handles at the city's transit hub, where numerous buses come and go and commuters park their cars.
Prosecutors contend that Officer Manuel Ramos pulled on latex gloves and threatened Thomas before punching him in the ribs and tackling him to pin him down. They say Cpl. Jay Cicinelli used a Taser four times on Thomas as he hollered 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.
On Tuesday, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas showed graphic photos from Thomas' autopsy that showed sutured wounds on his face, a bloodied eye and multiple bruises on his body.
Defense attorneys grilled Singhania and a trauma surgeon in an apparent effort to cast doubt on prosecutors' allegation that Thomas' breathing problems were caused by the confrontation.
They asked Dr. Michael Lekawa, chief of trauma surgery at University of California, Irvine, Medical Center whether sufficient compression took place during the struggle 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, who treated Thomas the night of the altercation, said he supposed CPR compressions could lead to some of the conditions. But he testified that Thomas' problems appeared to begin much earlier, noting that video and audio recordings of the incident showed his voice change from initial shouts of "I can't breathe" to long, drawn-out moans before he stopped talking altogether.
"The ongoing compression of his chest ultimately led him to have a respiratory arrest," Lekawa said.
The hearing — which will continue on Wednesday — has been 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 — which brought some of Thomas' supporters to tears Monday and prompted them to leave the courtroom — shows Ramos and another officer swing their batons at the shirtless man and pin him to the ground as he pleaded 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."
Six Fullerton officers were involved in the conflict but only the two were criminally charged.
Thomas' father Ron Thomas voiced frustration that defense attorneys were challenging the medics who treated his son in what he said was an effort to deflect responsibility from the officers.
"These folks really need to go to trial," he told reporters late Tuesday outside the courtroom. "These folks need to pay for what they've done."
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.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press
- Use of Force