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California policemen charged in homeless man's death

(Note strong language in paragraph 17)

By Tori Richards

SANTA ANA, Calif (Reuters) - Two California policemen were charged on Wednesday in the death of a schizophrenic homeless man who was beaten and repeatedly shocked with a Taser by officers in July.

The fatal confrontation between police in Fullerton, California and 37-year-old Kelly Thomas was caught on videotape by a bus depot surveillance camera and two witnesses with cell phones and touched off a series of protests in the city.

Officer Manuel Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the July 5 incident near the bus depot in Fullerton, 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Corporal Jay Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force.

Thomas was left on life support following the beating and died of his injuries five days later.

"All people in this great country of ours have a constitutional right to be free from the imposition of unlawful and excessive force under color of law," Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in announcing the charges against Ramos and Cicinelli at a news conference in Santa Ana.

"That is the rule of law and we will proceed to enforce it," he said.

Rackauckas said he declined to file charges against four other Fullerton police officers involved in the altercation with Thomas due to a lack of evidence against them.

The FBI is also investigating the case and an outside consultant is conducting a review of the Fullerton Police Department. Acting Fullerton Police Chief Kevin Hamilton said that the department respected the decision by Rackauckas and would cooperate with prosecutors.

'A TRAGIC EVENT'

"This has been a tragic event for Kelly Thomas, the Thomas family, the community, the police department and for all of those involved," Hamilton said.

Ramos and Cicinelli, who are on paid leave, surrendered to Orange County District Attorney's Office investigators on Wednesday morning and later made a brief appearance in court.

Cicinelli, who is free on $25,000 bail, pleaded not guilty and was ordered back to court for a hearing on November 4.

Arraignment for Ramos, who was being held on $1 million bond, was postponed until Monday. Thomas' father, Ron, urged Orange County Superior Court Judge Erick Larsh not to lower bail for Ramos at that hearing.

"Considering the horrible manner in which my son was murdered, considering the horrible events that have taken place, I can't imagine why you would even consider lowering the bail amount," Ron Thomas said.

Ramos, 37, faces a maximum of 15 years to life if he is found guilty at trial. Cicinelli, 39, faces up to four years behind bars if he is convicted.

Rackauckas said Ramos, a 10-year veteran of the Fullerton police department, was familiar with Thomas and knew that the shirtless drifter posed "no risk" when he began questioning him over reports of vandalized cars near a Fullerton bus depot.

When Thomas did not follow a command to sit with his legs outstretched, a "menacing" Ramos put on latex gloves, held up his fists and told the homeless man: "Now you see my fists? They are getting ready to f--- you up," Rackauckas said.

He said the incident turned violent after Thomas rose to his feet and Ramos swung his baton, then tackled him to the ground and punched him in the ribs.

Ramos was joined by five other Fullerton police officers, including Cicinelli, who kneed Thomas in the head, shocked him four times with a Taser and struck him in the face eight times with the device as he screamed for help, Rackauckas said.

The videotaped confrontation triggered calls for the resignation of Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers and members of the city council. Sellers has since been granted medical leave.

"It's heart-rending. It's hard to watch and listen to a person saying he's sorry, calling for his Dad, and asking for help. He seems to know it's over before it is," he said.

(Writing and additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jerry Norton and Peter Bohan)

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