By Tori Richards
SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - Spectators in a California courtroom gasped on Monday at a video tape showing a schizophrenic homeless man lying on the ground screaming, "They're killing me," as he was beaten and repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by police.
The chilling black-and-white footage was played during a daylong evidentiary hearing held in Orange County Superior Court in the case of two police officers facing homicide charges in the death last July of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas.
The fatal confrontation between police and Thomas, caught on videotape by a bus depot surveillance camera and by two bystanders with cell phones, touched off a series of protests last year in Fullerton, about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Officer Manuel Ramos, 38, a 10-year veteran on the Fullerton force, was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in connection with Thomas' death, and faces a maximum penalty of 15 years to life in prison if found guilty.
Corporal Jay Cicinelli, 40, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.
Judge Walter Schwarz is to decide at the end of the preliminary hearing, expected to last two days, whether there is sufficient evidence for the two policemen to stand trial.
The Orange County district attorney, Tony Rackauckas, declined to bring charges against four other Fullerton police officers involved in the altercation, citing a lack of evidence.
But Rackauckas said Thomas, who died five days after the July 5 beating without regaining consciousness, was a victim of "unlawful and excessive force under color of law."
The grainy footage from the depot camera, combined with audio picked up on radio microphones the officers wore, had never been played in public before Monday's hearing.
Many spectators who packed the hearing let out gasps at the violence depicted, and some in the courtroom continued to cry out through the screening, prompting the judge to briefly halt proceedings and order spectators to compose themselves.
After Thomas is seen being tackled to the ground, a police officer clubs him with a baton before another officer knees him. Thomas is heard screaming in pain and repeatedly yells, "I'm sorry, dude, I'm sorry!" as more policemen pile on.
At one point, Ramos can be heard saying, "There's ... blood everywhere," then Thomas shouts, "Dad, they're killing me, dad ... daddy!" The struggle goes on as officers implore Thomas to "relax." Minutes later he is heard crying, "Help me" one last time before he falls silent.
When the altercation ends, Cicinelli tells a fellow officer, "We ran out of options, so I got the end of my Taser and I ... just started smashing his face to hell. ... This guy's on something. It took like all of us to fight him."
According to prosecutors, Ramos was familiar with Thomas and had approached the drifter to question him over reports of vandalized cars near the bus station.
The video opens with the two men speaking in a seemingly cordial manner at first, but the encounter grows tense as Ramos orders Thomas to sit on the curb, which he does, then commands Thomas to put his hands on his knees and stretch out his legs.
Thomas, who prosecutors have described as schizophrenic, appears to have difficulty following the instructions, at which point the policeman dons rubber gloves and holds up his fists, saying, "Now you see my fists? They're getting ready to f--- you up." Thomas tries to bolt away at that moment but is tackled.
His father, Ron Thomas, a former Orange County sheriff's deputy, said during a break that hearing his son repeatedly cry out, "Help, Dad" was especially hard to take.
"When you see how they did it and know the beating he took and that he was trying to surrender, it's so painful," he said.
Fullerton fire Captain Ron Stancyk, a paramedic called to the scene, testified he first began tending to minor injuries of some of the officers, until he noticed Thomas lying motionless and badly hurt off to the side. None of the police mentioned Thomas when Stancyk arrived, he testified.
Defense lawyers are to present their side on Tuesday. Ramos' attorney is expected to argue that Thomas triggered the struggle when he failed to comply with police instructions.
(Reporting by Tori Richards; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Philip Barbara)