Tuesday, November 30, 2004
State High Court Upholds Death Sentence in Bay Area Murders
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Vietnam veteran who told the sentencing judge he wanted to die for three murders came a step closer to getting his wish yesterday as the California Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the death sentence imposed by a Contra Costa Superior Court judge.
William James Ramos may have had a “death wish,” Justice Ming Chin wrote for the high court. But he was competent to plead guilty, admit the multiple-murder special circumstance, and proceed directly to a capital sentencing trial, the justice concluded.
A jury found that Ramos should die for the murders of his girlfriend and the sister and daughter of his ex-girlfriend, all of whom where shot to death over a two-day period in March 1991.
At the penalty trial, prosecutors presented evidence of all three murders, of three prior felonies for which Ramos had been convicted—the attempted murder of a woman who dealt cards in a Reno casino after she broke up with him in 1976, a 1979 armed battery in the Reno area, and felony drunk driving in Sacramento in 1990—and of three uncharged episodes of criminal violence.
The last incident occurred while he was in jail awaiting trial for the murders. Ramos allegedly attacked one of his jailers, breaking his thumb, and later threatened to kill him.
After that episode, jail officials decided he was too dangerous to house, and he was transferred to San Quentin until the start of his trial.
A psychiatrist testified that Ramos suffered from a paranoid personality disorder, due to factors including an abusive childhood—his aunt testified that his mother beat him and his brother, and later committed suicide—and his wartime experiences. But the doctor also testified that he knew what he was doing.
Ramos was on probation at the time of the murders, a result of the drunk driving case, and police found his girlfriend’s body and other physical evidence of the murders in a warrantless search of his home. Before he pled guilty, Judge James Marchiano—since elevated to the First District Court of Appeal—denied his motion to suppress, ruling that there was a legitimate probation search.
Chin, writing for the high court, agreed.
“The facts known to the police when they undertook the probation search provide ample support for the intrusion on defendant’s privacy,” the justice wrote. He cited evidence that Mary Cagle, the defendant’s former wife, arrived at the scene shortly after her daughter was shot and saw Ramos driving away; that Ramos was bitter over the couple’s divorce; and that Ramos had called Cagle after her daughter was killed and left a message on her machine admitting he had killed her sister.
Defendant Held Competent
Chin said there was no need for Marchiano to hold a competency hearing, either before or after accepting the guilty plea. A defendant’s willingness to plead guilty to a capital charge does not, in and of itself, raise a doubt as to his ability to assist counsel in his defense, the justice wrote, and there was no other evidence to suggest a lack of competency as a matter of law.
The justice rejected the argument that Marchiano erred in relying on his own observations of the defendant’s demeanor in determining he was competent. While it would have been error to base a competency finding and such observation alone, Chin explained, a trial judge may consider the behavior exhibited by the defendant in the courtroom along with other available evidence in making a determination.
Chin also rejected the claim that the defendant’s rights were violated when the trial judge, balancing the defendant’s right to a fair trial against the privilege granted to journalists under the Shield Law, limited the defense cross-examination of a reporter for the Antioch Daily Ledger Post Dispatch.
The reporter, William Hutchinson, was subpoenaed by prosecutors to testify about an article based on a jailhouse interview. Hutchinson quoted the defendant as saying he expected to get the death penalty, that there was “a lot of evidence” against him, that he “weighed all that [the evidence and the possibility of capital punishment] before I did anything,” and that “if you push my button, then whatever happens, happens.”
A motion to quash the subpoena was denied after prosecutors assured the judge they would only question the reporter about matters outside the scope of the privilege, which protects anonymous sources and unpublished material. Hutchinson then testified that he did not independently recall the interview, but that he believed at the time of publication that everything in the article was accurate.
Marchiano ruled the defense could question Hutchinson about the defendant’s demeanor, mental status, and the manner in which the defendant answered questions, but could not compel him to produce his notes.
Chin said the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in handling the matter that way. The defendant, Chin wrote, made no showing that Marchiano’s ruling in any way “negatively influenced his ability to present a defense or receive assistance from counsel, or in any way changed his defense or the context of Hutchinson’s testimony.”
The case is People v. Ramos, 04 S.O.S. 6115.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company