Pasco murder ruling upheld in Washington Court of Appeals

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 12, 2013 

Vicente Ruiz

Vincente Ruiz

BOB BRAWDY

Convicted killer Vicente Ruiz always claimed he wasn't in a Pasco body shop in 1987 when six men were gunned down, but an appellate court ruled Thursday that the evidence "is very strong" to keep him in prison for life.

The Washington Court of Appeals upheld Ruiz's convictions for the bloody massacre that thrust Pasco into the national spotlight. Five men died that night, while the sixth escaped with serious wounds.

Yet, Kevin Holt, Ruiz's trial attorney, always has been a staunch believer of his innocence and said he will encourage the former client to press on with his appeal.

Ruiz, 48, is being held in Clallam Bay Corrections Center, according to the state Department of Corrections.

He is serving five life sentences for five counts of aggravated first-degree murder, in addition to 20 more years for one count of attempted first-degree murder.

The Pasco man was convicted by a Spokane jury in December 2010 after a seven-week trial. It was moved out of Franklin County after the first two Superior Court trials ended in mistrials.

He claimed it was a case of mistaken identity, and said he either was confused with his brothers or cousin -- who looked similar to him in 1987 -- or was framed by the business owner and shooting survivor. He didn't testify in trial.

At his sentencing the following month, Ruiz and his three lawyers said they were confident his life won't end in prison and were optimistic they had solid grounds for the appeal.

In June, the case went before a three-judge panel with the Division III court in Spokane. The defense raised three separate issues, but the court focused primarily on the testimony of Ruiz's cousin.

Pedro Mendez-Reyna also is serving a life sentence for his role in the slayings at Medina's Body Shop.

He struck a deal after his 1993 arrest, named his cousin as being his partner in the shootings and agreed to testify against Ruiz. But once on the stand in Spokane, he refused to give any more information after confirming his name.

"I plead the Fifth," Mendez-Reyna said repeatedly, claiming he had a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself before the jury.

The judge found him in contempt of court for ignoring orders to testify because Mendez-Reyna no longer had protections against self-incrimination because he had exhausted his appeal rights and did not face potential jeopardy.

Then, Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny asked Mendez-Reyna a series of specific questions about his conduct 23 years ago and his observations of Ruiz that night. He wanted the jury to draw the inference that Mendez-Reyna was refusing to testify to protect his cousin.

Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell allowed the questioning, saying it was supported by case law.

The defense had a standing objection to all questions asked of Mendez-Reyna, particularly because they were not able to cross-examine him because he was refusing to talk. Ruiz's lawyers also asked for a mistrial after later finding different case law they thought made it clear Mendez-Reyna's testimony never should have been allowed.

Thursday's appellate decision said it was permissible for the prosecutor to question "the recalcitrant witness despite his refusal to answer."

The panel further said "the direct and circumstantial evidence that Ruiz went to Medina's Body Shop in the Mazda RX-7 loaned to him on Oct. 13 and participated in the homicides is very strong.

"That evidence of guilt is further bolstered by Ruiz's leaving his personal belongings, pregnant girlfriend and their child behind to immediately flee to Mexico and avoid prosecution for 20 years."

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant, in a news release, thanked Jenny for his work on the case at trial and on the appellate level.

He also noted Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn, who tried the case with Jenny.

Sant's predecessor, Steve Lowe, was in office when Jenny and Hultgrenn secured the convictions.

Holt said Thursday that he is not happy with the exceptionally long opinion, which came in at 32 pages.

"Whatever happened to applying the law to the facts and accepting the legal outcome regardless of whether it favored the state or a defendant?" Holt told the Herald.

"I am getting tired of the intellectual dishonesty the courts -- and specifically Division III -- goes through to preserve a conviction," he said.

"This type of legal analysis of the end justifies the means by law enforcement and the judiciary is detrimental to all our liberty," he added.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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