MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. In Southern California, two police officers have been ordered to stand trial for the death of a mentally ill homeless man. Kelly Thomas died from injuries sustained during a violent arrest by six officers.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that Thomas' death has shocked the city of Fullerton.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It's been almost a year since 37-year-old Kelly Thomas was approached at the Fullerton bus depot by police officer Manuel Ramos. Thomas, shirtless and sporting a full beard, was a well-known homeless fixture there. Officer Ramos was responding to a call that someone had been peering into cars at the depot.
MANUEL RAMOS: Put your feet out in front of you.
KELLY THOMAS: (Unintelligible).
RAMOS: Well, you're going to have to (unintelligible) real quick.
KAHN: The surveillance video at the bus depot was running and Officer Ramos was recorded by a device he was wearing on his uniform. He tells Thomas repeatedly to put his feet out in front of him. The audio and video synched together was the key evidence shown in court this week during a preliminary hearing to decide whether to bring the officers to trial.
As a warning, both the video and audio are disturbing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)
KAHN: After several minutes, a visibly annoyed Ramos slowly puts on latex gloves and, using expletives, threatens Thomas with his fists. The confrontation escalates and Thomas is seen trying to run from Ramos, who hits him with a baton. Soon after, another officer assists.
THOMAS: (Unintelligible) I'm sorry, dude. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
KAHN: In all, six officers try to subdue Thomas, who is heard crying for help and for his dad.
THOMAS: Dad, Dad. No.
KAHN: The judge viewing the evidence this week halted proceedings as audience members gasped and cried out during the viewing of the video. Outside the courtroom, Kelly's father, Ron Thomas, says it's too much to watch.
RON THOMAS: To hear Kelly and his screams for me to save him fade away, that haunts me every day. It haunts me every night.
KAHN: And Thomas says it's pushed him to seek justice for his son.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)
KAHN: For weeks last year, dozens of supporters rallied in front of Fullerton's police headquarters demanding the officers be prosecuted. Under pressure, the chief of police took a medical leave of absence then resigned. The county district attorney personally presented much of the case in court this week and took the extraordinary step of charging Officer Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder. Officer Jay Cicinelli faces lesser charges.
Ramos' defense attorney, John Barnett, says his client did not use excessive force and had every legal right as a police officer to threaten a suspect who wouldn't follow orders.
JOHN BARNETT: I just do not believe that a conditional threat to use force can support a murder conviction.
KAHN: Legal experts say prosecutors do have a tough job to convict a cop of murder. Ramos is the first officer in Orange County to ever stand trial for murder committed while on duty.
For their part, mental health advocates say this case - and most importantly, the video - has brought much-needed attention to the mistreatment of the mentally ill.
RUSTY SELIX: I think that this video will certainly be a wake-up call for law enforcement.
KAHN: Rusty Selix of the Mental Health Association of California says it's just like the video taken of cops beating Rodney King.
SELIX: I think every law enforcement unit will want to think about, gee, are we ready? You know, would we have responded the same way?
KAHN: Officer Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, says he'll appeal the decision to go to trial and says he's confident his client will be acquitted. Barnett defended one of the officers charged in the Rodney King beating. That officer was found not guilty.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
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