Fullerton’s city council scheduled a last-minute meeting with its lawyers for Monday morning, the same time that a court trial was supposed to begin in the lawsuit filed over the death of a transient man named Kelly Thomas, allegedly at the hands of Fullerton police.
The Fullerton city council called a closed-door session to discuss the case with its lawyer at 9 a.m. Monday. That is the same time that opening statements were expected to be made by attorneys Monday morning.
Thomas was declared brain dead the night of the struggle and was taken off life-support machines July 10, 2011.
The lawsuit claims Thomas was killed by police, who were poorly trained on how to deal with a mentally-ill person. The criminal trial against then-Officer Manuel Ramos and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli ended with no convictions, prosecutors later dropped charges against then-Officer Joe Wolfe.
In “mini opening statements” made by attorneys before prospective jurors on Nov. 9, it appears the 33-minute-long video of the incident will be the main evidence.
The key dispute will be who was at fault for Thomas’ death, the attorneys said.
One attorney representing Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, predicted the evidence will show the officers violated their training and department’s rules and suffocated the 37-year-old transient July 5, 2011, at the Fullerton Transportation Center.
The attorneys representing the defendants say Thomas had a heart attack due to a preexisting condition and that the officers acted properly and were not at fault in the man’s death.
Thomas’ attorney, Garo Mardirossian, cited Orange County coroner reports concluding Kelly Thomas died of “positional asphyxiation and blunt force trauma to the head.”
A former Ventura County medical examiner came to the same conclusion and is expected to testify, Mardirossian added.
Kelly Thomas was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 21 years old and decided “he was better off living outdoors,” Mardirossian said.
The transient could always stay with his mother or father and a grandparent, but more often than not during his adulthood he chose to be “semi- homeless,” Mardirossian said.
Six officers were involved in the deadly struggle, and they had an average weight “well over 200 pounds each,” Mardirossian said.
As Thomas pleaded that he couldn’t breathe and cried out for help from his father, the officers used a Taser on him and beat on him as they tried to hobble him with handcuffs, Mardirossian said.
“We don’t believe they should have used any force in this case at all,” Mardirossian said.
Attorney Dana Fox, who represents Sgt. Kevin Craig and Officer Jim Blatney, said, “This is a tragic case, no doubt about it, but there are many sides to this story.”
Fox said Ramos had encountered Thomas several times before, but that the trouble began when Thomas refused to identify himself. Ramos remembered Thomas, but did not recall his name, Fox said.
Wolfe searched Thomas’ backpack and found mail addressed to an attorney, so they suspected a possible theft of mail, Fox said. The struggle started when Thomas refused to follow the officers’ orders and then stood up to “confront” the officers, Fox said.
Craig showed up 19 minutes into the conflict, Fox said. The 19-year veteran sergeant’s job was to ensure the officers are safe, and “He’s helping coach the officers to get the man cuffed,” Fox added.
Craig also tried to make certain Thomas was restrained in a way that did not inhibit his breathing, Fox said. When Thomas was put into an ambulance he was still breathing, the attorney said.
“The evidence is going to show he had a bad, preexisting heart” condition, Fox said.
If jurors find the defendants liable then they will consider how much money to award the plaintiff in punitive damages, Fox said.
Ron Thomas, the father of Kelly Thomas, filed the lawsuit on the one-year anniversary of his son’s death, alleging assault and battery, negligence, wrongful death and civil rights violations.
— City News Service