Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas today described a brutal police beating that, he said, led to the death of an unarmed schizophrenic homeless man in Southern California.
The death sparked outrage in the community, with hundreds of protesters condemning the police.
Today, Rackauckas announced second degree murder and manslaughter charges against two police officers in the death of Kelly Thomas, 37, a mentally ill homeless man recognized and known to the community.
Officer Manuel Ramos made a "deliberate showing up putting latex gloves on," Rackauckas said, and stood over a terrified and unarmed Thomas in a "menacing manner."
"Kelly Thomas appeared to be acting in self-defense, in pain, in a state of panic," Rackauckas said. "His numerous pleas of 'I'm sorry,' 'I can't breathe,' 'Help,' 'Dad' ... [were] all to no avail. Screams, loud screams, didn't help."
Thomas suffered a brutal beating from the two officers that included being tackled, pinned to the ground, kneed in the head, tasered numerous times and shot with darts from a stun gun, Rackauckas said.
After the July 5 death, six officers were placed on leave but Rackauckas announced that only two, Ramos and Officer Jay Cicinelli, would be charged with the crime.
"In Orange County, we generally trust our law enforcement and we have good reason to," Rackauckas said. "We must do everything we can to ensure that we protect this trust, including, if necessary, prosecuting police officers who violate the law."
Ramos was charged with second degree murder and a felony count for involuntary manslaughter. If found guilty, he could face 15 years to life in state prison. Cicinelli was charged with felonies for excessive use of force and involuntary manslaughter. For him, the maximum sentence is four years in state prison.
The announcement followed an 11-week investigation, with evidence including two cell phone videos, surveillance video, 151 witnesses, police reports, medical reports, the coroner report and examination of the batons and tasers used by police.
Kelly was shirtless with no backpack or obvious bulges in his pants that could have led officers to believe he was concealing a weapon. Ramos yelled at him and threatened him with profanities before attacking him.
"It was obvious that Kelly Thomas had difficulty following Ramos' instructions," Rackauckas said. "The encounter changed from a fairly routine police detention to an impending beating by an angry police officer."
Thomas' cause of death was "mechanical compression of thorax" from being pinned down with the body weight of one of the officers on top of him, Rackauckas said. The compression led to his inability to breathe, which caused him to lose consciousness, enter a coma and die.
"Police officers have a right to use reasonable force in performing a lawful duty, but citizens have a right to self defense, even against the police if the police are using excessive force, if they're not performing a lawful duty," Rackauckas said.
When the officers began beating Thomas in the face, Rackauckas added, he was unresponsive as a pool of blood grew around him, making the violence clearly unnecessary.
"The biggest shame about this case is it didn't have to happen," Rackauckas said. "It could have been avoided. It never should have happened."