California city sued over fatal police beating of homeless man

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 05, 2012 9:42 PM
California city sued over fatal police beating of homeless man

By Tori Richards

SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - The father of a homeless man who died after he was beaten and shocked with a stun gun by police in Southern California filed suit on Thursday, the first anniversary of the incident, seeking unspecified damages from the city of Fullerton.

The lawsuit paints a vivid picture of how Kelly Thomas, 37, a transient who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, repeatedly apologized, begged for his life and expressed pain during his encounter with officers last year.

The fatal struggle, captured on videotape, touched off a series of protests in the city, prompted the criminal prosecution of the two officers involved in the beating and led to the ouster of three city councilmen in a recall election last month. The city's police chief also resigned.

One clip of the beating, aired repeatedly on cable television, showed Thomas lying on the ground screaming, "They're killing me," as several officers swarmed over him, delivering multiple blows and Taser shocks.

In May, the city agreed to pay $1 million to Thomas' mother, Cathy Thomas, in a negotiated settlement of any potential claims she might have brought in connection with her son's death. Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, and Cathy Thomas are divorced.

The separate lawsuit brought by Ron Thomas accuses the city of wrongful death, negligence and violations of his son's civil rights, saying the Fullerton Police Department has a history of abusive conduct covered up or ignored by its superiors.

"The murder of Kelly Thomas was the inevitable result of the culture of corruption and deliberate indifference within the City of Fullerton Police Department," said the lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court.

"I have to do this for Kelly. He can't do it. I am his voice. I am the one who is going to get his justice," the father told Reuters, calling his suit "the next step in the process."

A spokesman for the police department, Jeff Stuart, declined to discuss the lawsuit.

"We have not had a chance to review the suit and cannot make any comment due to pending litigation," he said.

Two Fullerton policemen were ordered in May to stand trial on charges stemming from Thomas' death.

Officer Manuel Ramos, 38, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and faces a maximum penalty of 15 years to life in prison if found guilty. Corporal Jay Cicinelli, 40, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and the use of excessive force. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted. Both officers have pleaded not guilty.

Thomas' confrontation with police on the night of July 5, 2011, began with them questioning him about his tampering with car doors at a bus depot and escalated into a beating that ultimately involved six officers and led to his death five days later.

The lawsuit also chronicled 12 additional instances in which Fullerton officers were accused of engaging in unprovoked beatings or false arrests of citizens. In Thomas' case, he had not committed any crime, according to prosecutors.

(Reporting and writing by Tori Richards; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)