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Kelly Thomas died from chest, facial injuries, coroner says

May 8, 2012 |  7:12 pm

   A coroner’s pathologist testified that Kelly Thomas, the mentally ill homeless man who was beaten by police last summer, died from chest compression and blunt-force facial injuries.

The testimony, coming in the second day of a preliminary hearing to determine whether two police officers should stand trial for his death, came as defense attorneys questioned whether the medics who treated Thomas – and not the officers – might have inflicted fatal injuries while trying to insert a breathing tube.

The hearing, which has orbited around a graphic and disturbing video of officers pummeling Kelly outside a bus depot in downtown Fullerton, has at times been difficult for spectators to watch.

PHOTOS: Kelly Thomas death

When the video was played for the first time Monday, some in the courtroom walked out, and the judge stopped the tape when others began groaning.

On Tuesday, when autopsy photos of Thomas were flashed on a screen, his face broken and battered, his father stood up and left the courtroom.

The cause of Thomas' death has been at the center of the hearing, in which Officer Manuel Ramos and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli are charged -- Ramos with second-degree murder, Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter.

Testifying in the preliminary hearing for the Fullerton police officers, the pathologist, Dr. Aruna Singhania, showed the graphic images of the dead man -- pointing out bruises and wounds on Thomas' body.

Singhana testified that she reviewed medical records and came to the conclusion that Thomas had died because of chest compression. Singhania said that finding was based on hospital records, the video and her own examination.

Earlier, a trauma surgeon was challenged to review the video and pinpoint the moment when a police officer might have delivered a fatal blow.

"Is there a particular act that actually had the effect?" asked John Barnett, the attorney for Ramos.

UC Irvine surgeon Michael Lekawa, however, said the damage was probably cumulative and that as more physical effort was used to subdue Thomas, who on the video is heard complaining of having difficulty breathing, it would lead to inadequate oxygen levels in the blood.

"It happened over time," said the head of trauma surgery at UCI.

Barnett continued showing snippets of the graphic video and, by the 19-minute mark in the 32-minute tape, the surgeon said that the moment might have been when the video showed an officer on Thomas' torso.

Lekawa said he believed "200 pounds of weight is enough" to cause chest compression and a deadly lack of oxygen.

The surgeon testified "he appears to be struggling to breathe" at the 20-minute mark in the video. At that moment, Thomas is shocked with a Taser and struck several times with the butt of the Taser.

Cicinelli's attorney, Michael Schwartz, asked the surgeon whether he had heard of any player dying of a lack of oxygen during a football game after players piled on them.

Lekawa said he had not.

The grainy black-and-white video of Thomas’ violent tangle with police is the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case that the officers escalated a standard police encounter with a homeless man into a fatal beating.

At one point, Thomas screams out: “Dad, they are killing me.”

--Richard Winton