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Emotions flow as California police acquitted in death

By Gillian Flaccus

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14 2014 11:49 a.m. MST

This undated file photo provided by Ron Thomas shows his son, Kelly Thomas. The two California police officers who were videotaped in a violent struggle with a Thomas a homeless man during an arrest were acquitted Monday Jan. 14, 2014 of killing him.

Courtesy Ron Thomas, Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. — By the time all four verdicts were read clearing two California officers of killing a homeless man, people on both sides of the gallery were sobbing.

In the audience, the mother of Kelly Thomas wept into a tissue as someone shouted, "No!" A collective gasp went up from the gallery. Former police Cpl. Jay Cicinelli's attorney pounded twice on the defense table, grabbing his client in a bear hug, as former Officer Manuel Ramos' family clutched hands and cried.

Thomas, 37, died five days after a violent confrontation with six officers in July 2011. A surveillance camera at the busy transit center where the incident unfolded captured him screaming for his father again and again and begging for air as the police kneed him, jolted him with an electric stun gun and used the blunt end to strike him around the face and head.

It was a rare case in which police officers were charged in a death involving actions on duty. Jurors took less than two days to reach their verdicts.

Ramos, 39, was acquitted of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter on Monday. Cicinelli, 41, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckus, who tried the case himself, said after the verdicts that charges will be dropped against Joseph Wolfe, a third officer awaiting trial.

The FBI said that it will review the evidence to determine whether federal action is justified.

"With the conclusion of the state court trial, investigators will examine the evidence and testimony to determine whether further investigation is warranted at the federal level," said Laura Eimiller, the FBI's spokeswoman in Los Angeles.

Outside court, Thomas' parents condemned the verdicts.

"Just horrified," Cathy Thomas said. "He got away with murdering my son."

Ron Thomas said the verdict gave police "carte blanche" to brutalize people.

"All of us need to be very afraid now," he said. "Police officers everywhere can beat us, kill us, whatever they want, but it has been proven right here today they'll get away with it."

Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, said jurors did their duty.

"These peace officers were doing their jobs," he said. "They were operating as they were trained, and they had no malice in their hearts."

The defense said Thomas started the confrontation by refusing to heed police orders and was fighting officers so much that they called for backup multiple times. At one point, the lawyers said, Thomas tried to reach for Cicinelli's stun gun.

Ron Thomas has countered that his son suffered from schizophrenia and didn't understand the officers.

The video began with Ramos stopping Thomas on July 5, 2011, after the officer answered a call about a disheveled man jiggling the handles of car doors in a busy transit center parking lot.

Ramos grew frustrated with Thomas, who wasn't following orders to sit on a curb with his hands on his knees.

Just before the altercation began, Ramos snapped on plastic gloves, made two fists and then held them in front of Thomas' face as he said, "Now see these fists? They're going to (expletive) you up."

Cicinelli, who arrived a few moments later, jolted Thomas several times with an electric stun gun and used the butt end to hit Thomas in the head and face, breaking bones.

Thomas was taken off life support five days later.

A county pathologist concluded that Thomas died, in part, from asphyxiation caused by injuries he received during the confrontation.

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