By Dana Feldman
SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - The trial of two former California policemen charged in the beating and death of a mentally ill transient opened on Monday with a prosecutor telling jurors that a "routine" police contact ended with the man dying in a pool of blood.
Defense lawyers countered that 37-year-old Kelly Thomas suffered from a weakened heart brought on by drug abuse and died because he became combative with the police officers during the July 5, 2011 incident that lead to his death.
Thomas' death in Fullerton, southeast of Los Angeles, inflamed the community and lead to political upheaval.
Former police officer Manuel Ramos, 39, is charged with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in Thomas' death,
Jay Cicinelli, a 41-year-old ex-corporal with the Fullerton Police Department, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors say the two officers, who approached Thomas to question him about reports of vandalized cars near a bus depot, turned a routine encounter into an unnecessary and savage beating that cost the unarmed homeless man his life in what represented a flagrant abuse of authority.
In his opening remarks, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Thomas was harmless and was well known to Ramos.
"This was routine and yet within the space of 30 minutes Kelly Thomas would be laying in the street in a pool of his own blood, unconscious and dying," he said.
A lawyer for Ramos, John Barnett, said in his opening statement that Thomas had abused methamphetamine for years and was prone to violent outbursts.
"This was a case about a man who made choices in his life. Bad choices that led to his death," he said.
Cicinelli's lead defense attorney, Michael Schwartz, said t Thomas did not die from the beating at all, but from cardiac arrest brought on by over-exertion while he was already suffering from a heart condition induced by methamphetamines.
"The evidence will show there was no deadly beating at all," Swartz said.
The incident, which was captured on videotape, led to a series of protests in Fullerton as well as the ouster of three city councilmen in a recall election. 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 shocks with stun guns.
Last year, Fullerton's acting chief of police posthumously exonerated Thomas of any wrongdoing in connection with the confrontation, saying he was cleared of suspicion that he did anything to provoke the violent struggle that led to his death.
The city has also agreed to pay $1 million to Thomas' mother in a negotiated settlement of any claims she might have brought in her son's death. Thomas' father filed a separate lawsuit on the one-year anniversary of the beating.
Ramos faces 15 years to life in prison if he is convicted. Cicinelli faces up to four years behind bars.
(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bob Burgdorfer and Christopher Wilson)