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Attorney defends Fullerton officers in death of homeless man

August 3, 2011 | 11:17 am

Fullerton homeless man's memorial

An attorney for the six Fullerton officers placed on leave as authorities investigate the death of a homeless man during a confrontation last month defended the actions of the police.

Michael D. Schwartz said Kelly Thomas was combative with officers. And contrary to the statements of at least one witness, the officers did not use a flashlight as a weapon, he said.

Schwartz also said there was “no excessive use" by the officer of a Taser on Thomas -- rebuffing claims made by several witnesses.

PHOTOS: Homeless man dies after run-in with Fullerton police

At a Fullerton City Council meeting, scores of angry speakers criticized the incident, with some calling on the police chief to resign.

The six officers fought with Thomas and used a Taser on him several times, leaving him bloody, beaten and in a coma. Thomas died five days later after being removed from life support. Photos of Thomas at a hospital show his face grotesquely swollen.

Schwartz, whose law firm represents the officers, said he could not discuss specifics because of the ongoing criminal and administrative investigation.

“Unfortunately, public perception of officer's trying to control a combative, resistive suspect rarely conforms to those officers' training, experience, what those officers were experiencing at the time or reality,” he said. “This seems to be a case in point.”

The FBI’s civil rights unit and the Orange County district attorney's office are investigating the case, and as more information has become public, residents in the college community have become more vocal about the department and want explanations of how the homeless son of a retired deputy sheriff could die after a violent arrest.

Concerns about the incident have been heightened by two videos on which witnesses reacted to the police action. In one video taken by a bystander, Thomas can be heard screaming "Dad! Dad! Dad!" over the clicking sounds of the Taser.

"They've Tased him five times already," a woman can be heard saying on the video. "That's enough!"

"They're freaking ruthless," another man says, adding moments later: "I don't know why they don't just put cuffs on him and call it a night, instead of hitting him."

Officials said there are other videos that have not been released, including some that might more directly capture what the officers did. Some Fullerton council members are demanding that those videos be released to the public, but the district attorney's office has declined, citing fears of tainting potential witness testimony.


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-- Richard Winton in Los Angeles and Abby Sewell in Fullerton

Photo: Passersby stop to read notes left at a sidewalk memorial for Kelly Thomas, 37, a homeless schizophrenic man who died five days after an altercation with Fullerton police July 5 near the bus station. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times