Defense rests in Kelly Thomas trial

PAUL ANDERSON, City News Service
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Defense attorney for former Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos,  John Barnett, shows a diagram portraying Kelly Thomas as an unpredictably violent person during opening statements on Dec. 2, 2013 in Santa Ana, Calif. (AP Photo/The Orange County Register, Bruce Chambers, Pool)

Defense attorney for former Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos, John Barnett, shows a diagram portraying Kelly Thomas as an unpredictably violent person during opening statements on Dec. 2, 2013 in Santa Ana, Calif. (AP Photo/The Orange County Register, Bruce Chambers, Pool)

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SANTA ANA (CNS) – A heart specialist testified today that a homeless man who struggled with Fullerton police officers died because of heart failure brought on by years of methamphetamine abuse.

Dr. Steven Karch, who has written a text book on the pathology of drug abuse, also testified that Kelly Thomas was suffering a “psychotic episode” during his July 5, 2011, struggle with six officers, including the two defendants charged in connection with the 37-year-old transient’s death.

Ex-Officer Manuel Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.

The testimony of Karch — who was paid $750 an hour by the defense for his research, which included studying tissue samples of Thomas’ heart — contradicts the opinions of pathologist Aruna Singhania and physician Michael Lekawa, who testified Thomas’ heart swelled as a result of the struggle and that his airways were choked off by chest compression and a bloodied, broken nose, which led to brain death.

Karch even coined his own phrase for the cause of death — methamphetamine cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy is essentially heart disease with symptoms that include an enlargement or thickening of the blood-pumping muscle.

Karch acknowledged during questioning from Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas that there are no published studies on life expectancy after a cardiomyopathy diagnosis, but he added most methamphetamine users die in their 20s and 30s.

Drug addicts who abuse stimulative drugs, such as cocaine, “die much younger,” Karch said, adding that “at best” they make it into their 40s.

Thomas also suffered from Hashimoto’s disease, Karch testified. The disease occurs when the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, which produces hormones related to the coordination of many bodily functions.

The “psychotic episode” exacerbated Thomas’ conflict with Ramos, Cicinelli and the other officers who encountered him that night at the Fullerton Transportation Center, Karch testified.

“It didn’t make his situation any easier,” Karch said, adding that he believed Thomas was not feeling normal levels of pain, which enabled him to keep struggling with the officers.

“Their contact with reality is lost and part of reality is pain,” Karch said of people who have psychotic episodes.

Rackauckas questioned Karch about the effects of adrenaline in the struggle and if fear could have fueled it.

Karch testified that Thomas suffered from “spontaneous” psychotic episodes because of the methamphetamine abuse, but his only proof of it the night of the struggle with police was based on the suspect’s behavior.

“I can’t imagine a situation where I would try to fight with six policemen,” Karch said. “I wouldn’t reckon my odds were very good even if I were 40 years younger.”

Thomas could have died unexpectedly at any time, without any physical exertion, because of his weakened heart, Karch testified.

“So, on July 5, 2011, would a five-minute walk have killed Kelly Thomas?” Rackauckas asked.

“I can’t say,” Karch replied.

“How about a five-minute jog?” Rackauckas asked.

“That would be more likely, but it oversimplifies the issue,” Karch responded. “You need other things to go wrong to tip the scales.”

When Rackauckas asked Karch if stress could have brought on Thomas’ heart attack, Karch replied, “I can’t prove it, not one way or the other at this point.”

As for Thomas’ frequent cries during the battle with police that he could not breathe, Karch said those sorts of exhortations are common during a psychotic episode. It does not, however, show whether he was having difficulty breathing, Karch testified.

Police were summoned to the transportation center in response to a call from a nearby nightclub that someone — investigators later determined Thomas was not involved — was trying to break into cars in the business’ parking lot.

What began as a routine meeting between Ramos and two other officers escalated into violence as Thomas refused to tell them his name and carried on a prickly and sarcastic back-and-forth with his questioners, according to surveillance video of the conflict that was shown to jurors.

Thomas died at UC Irvine Medical Center five days later after being taken off life support.

Prosecutors plan to have Dr. Anthony Juguilon, who does many of the autopsies for the county, testify in rebuttal Thursday. After Thursday’s testimony, jurors will return to court Jan. 6 and may begin hearing closing arguments the next day.

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