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Cops To Stand Trial In Homeless Man's Beating Death

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Two police officers in the Southern California town of Fullerton have been ordered to stand trial for the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man.

Thomas died in July 2011 from injuries sustained during a violent arrest by six Fullerton officers.

The night of the arrest, Fullerton police officer Manual Ramos approached Thomas, then 37, while responding to a call that someone had been peering into cars at the town's bus depot.

The surveillance video at the depot was running during the incident, and officer Ramos was also recorded by a device he was wearing on his uniform. Synced together, the audio and video formed the key evidence shown in court this week during a preliminary hearing to decide whether to bring the officers to trial.

A Disturbing Video

Thomas, shirtless and sporting a full beard the night of the arrest, was a well-known fixture at the bus depot.

In the video, Ramos approaches Thomas and tells him repeatedly to extend his feet in front of him and to put his hands on his knees.

After several minutes, the recordings show a visibly annoyed Ramos slowly putting on latex gloves and, using expletives, threatening Thomas with his fists.

The confrontation escalates, and Thomas is seen trying to run from Ramos, who hits him with a baton. Soon after, another officer assists Ramos, as Thomas apologizes and insists that he can't breathe.

In all, six officers tried to subdue Thomas, who is heard in the recording crying for help and for his father.

Thomas died five days later after being taken off life support.

The judge reviewing the evidence this week halted proceedings as audience members gasped and cried out as the video was screened.

Outside the courtroom, Kelly's father, Ron Thomas, says the recording is too difficult to watch.

"To hear Kelly, in his screams for me to save him fade away ... that haunts me every day, it haunts me every night," Ron Thomas says.

Thomas says those haunting cries have pushed him to seek justice for his son.

For weeks last year, dozens of supporters rallied in front of Fullerton's police headquarters demanding that the officers be prosecuted. Under pressure, the chief of police took a medical leave of absence, then resigned, and three City Council members have been targeted for recall.

An Unprecedented Charge

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas personally presented much of the case in court this week and took the extraordinary step of charging Ramos with second degree murder.

Officer Jay Cicinelli faces lesser charges, including involuntary manslaughter.

Ramos' defense attorney John Barnett says his client did not use excessive force and, as a police officer, had every legal right to threaten a suspect who wouldn't follow orders.

"I just do not believe that a conditional threat to use force can support a murder conviction," Barnett says.

Barnett adds that in the video, Ramos is only seen holding down Thomas' legs.

Ramos is the first officer in Orange County to ever stand trial for murder committed while on duty. Legal experts say the prosecution will have a difficult time winning a murder conviction.

'A Wake-Up Call'

For their part, mental health advocates say this case — and most important, the video of the incident — has brought much needed attention to the mistreatment of the mentally ill.

"I think that this video will certainly be a wake-up call for law enforcement," says Rusty Selix, executive director of the Mental Health Association of California. He compares the case to the 1991 video taken of officers beating Rodney King.

"I think every law enforcement unit will want to think about, 'Gee, are we ready? Would we have responded the same way?' " Selix says.

Defense attorney Barnett says he'll appeal the decision to go to trial. He says he is confident his client will be acquitted.

Barnett defended one of the officers charged in the Rodney King beating. That officer was found not guilty.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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