Prospective jurors questioned in Kelly Thomas case

PAUL ANDERSON, City News Service
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SANTA ANA (CNS) – Questioning of prospective jurors got under way today for the trial of two former Fullerton law enforcement officers charged in the beating death of a transient.

The pool of about 115 potential jurors recently filled out questionnaires asking if they knew anyone in law enforcement or someone who suffered from mental illness, among other topics.

Jury selection is expected to take two or three days, with opening statements and testimony slated to begin Dec. 2 in the trial of former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli and ex-Officer Manuel Anthony Ramos.

Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the July 5, 2011, death of Kelly Thomas, while Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.

One woman told Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg during questioning this morning that her nephew faced indecent exposure charges in Santa Barbara and that her husband, an attorney who specializes in civil litigation, assisted him.

Another prospective juror expressed concern in her questionnaire that she might struggle with her English, prompting the judge to ask her if she is able to read and write the language.

“Yeah, the basics,” she replied.

Froeberg then asked if she had any trouble following this morning’s proceedings.

“Pardon me?” she replied, drawing laughter from the other jurors.

Another man, who works in a pre-school, said he was interested in a career as a probation officer because he’s noticed in his Santa Ana neighborhood that some of his friends struggle with drugs and the law.

Froeberg quipped, “They’re kind of similar — preschool and probation.”

Another man said he once had “top-secret clearance” in the Air Force, leading the judge to jokingly ask him, “Can you talk about it or would you have to shoot me?”

On a more serious note, perhaps indicating the trouble attorneys will have selecting jurors given the degree of publicity about Thomas’ death, another woman said news accounts shaded her opinion about the case.

Under questioning from Ramos’ attorney, John Barnett, she said she saw news interviews with the victim’s father, but acknowledged, “I haven’t heard the other side.”

She also said in her questionnaire that it appeared the officers “didn’t listen” to Thomas.

Last week, Froeberg issued several rulings on what the jury will hear about Thomas’ multiple brushes with the law over the years, dating back to an attack on his grandfather with a fireplace poker in the mid-1990s.

Thomas’ mother testified last Monday that her son put a hand on her neck and restrained her during an argument in December 2007. But Cathy Thomas, who is expected to testify during the trial, said she did not recall telling police that her son threatened her with a butcher knife.

The officer who took the report will have to testify before the trial, before Froeberg rules on whether jurors can hear about that alleged threat.

Cathy Thomas testified that she “may have exaggerated my statement at times” to police, because she was advised by law enforcement that the more often and more serious the claims, the easier it would be to set her son up with mental health assistance.

When Barnett asked her if her son choked her, she replied that he “put a hand on my throat. It wasn’t real life-threatening … He just held me there in one spot … for a couple of minutes.”

Three years later in December 2010, Cathy Thomas applied for a restraining order to keep her son from contacting her while she stayed at her parents’ home in Fullerton. Her son was sleeping on the porch and urinating in public.

“I wasn’t in fear of him,” Cathy Thomas said, downplaying her claims in the restraining order. “I was told it would get him more help.”

Barnett said he was in the process of subpoenaing the police officer who took the report about the 2007 incident.

Also, still to be determined, is how much jurors will hear about how Kelly Thomas’ drug abuse over the years affected him during his encounter with Ramos that led to his fatal beating.

Defense attorneys want to contradict any characterization of Thomas as a harmless, mentally ill transient pummeled to death by police, who threatened to attack him.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas maintains that Thomas was frightened when Ramos held his fists up to him, threatening to “(expletive) him up,” if Thomas didn’t comply with the officer’s orders, giving the transient the right to run away and defend himself.

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