Franklin Co. judge declares mistrial in Ruiz murder case

PASCO — After denying repeated requests over the past nine weeks to end Vicente Ruiz's murder trial, a Franklin County judge declared a mistrial in the case Tuesday, saying new evidence could bolster defense claims of misidentification.

This is the second mistrial for Ruiz, accused of gunning down six men inside of Medina's Body Shop in 1987.

Judge Cameron Mitchell struggled with his decision -- taking several long pauses -- before granting the defense motion.

Ruiz's lawyers should have long ago received copies of Pasco police files, including a report about a potential witness who identified a person other than Ruiz as a suspect, he said.

The information was discovered by the defense last week.

"I've been racking my brain over the lunch hour and, quite frankly, prior to that and again since we've been here in court this afternoon as to an effective and appropriate procedure that would allow the defense to investigate this information ... and also allow the trial to go forward with this jury pool," Mitchell said.

He admitted he couldn't come up with anything, and determined a mistrial was the only appropriate action.

"Again, doing so I am quite cognizant of the efforts and resources that have been expended in trying to bring this case to trial and move the trial as far as we have," he added. "Again, at this point I do not see a viable alternative, so the court is going to declare a mistrial in this matter."

Mitchell spent a half-hour explaining his findings.

While concerned that the documents weren't previously handed over to the defense, he said nothing shows that "the prosecution was aware of this information and chose not to provide it to the defense. I think that is a leap that is not justified by the information that's been provided to the court at this point."

Defense attorneys initially told the court they would need a month to look into the new material, but acknowledged after the ruling that won't be enough.

When asked what is a reasonable time to investigate, Bob Thompson responded: "We can't make any promises, your honor."

The jury officially will be released by Mitchell this morning.

Ruiz, 45, will return to Franklin County Superior Court on Thursday to discuss new dates. His lawyers wouldn't immediately say if they'll renew their request to move the case out of Franklin County.

"It was a real tough decision for the judge in light of all the pressure to get this thing to trial," Kevin Holt said after the ruling. "It takes a lot of character to say something is wrong and it needs to be fixed."

Ruiz is charged with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree attempted murder.

Prosecutors allege Ruiz helped his cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, shoot the men inside the Pasco garage more than 22 years ago.

Killed were: Misael Barajas, 22; Juan Antonio Lopez Garcia, 20; Eliceo Guzman Lamas, 20; and Rafael Parra Magallon, 22, all of Pasco, and Francisco Venegas Cortez, 21, of Kennewick.

Aldo Montes, 20, who also uses the name Jesse Rocio, survived a gunshot wound to the stomach.

Mendez-Reyna is serving a life sentence after pointing the finger at his cousin and agreeing to testify as part of his plea agreement.

However, Ruiz always has maintained his innocence and claims it may have been another person, like his brother who is said to be nearly identical in appearance. He has been in custody since September 2006 and was extradited to Pasco in 2007.

Ruiz first went on trial in 2008 on the murder charges. That ended in a mistrial when further DNA testing was requested on a straw hat in evidence.

This trial started April 19 and, after a series of delays including a stay by the Washington state Court of Appeals, the first testimony was presented June 7. The jury had been in recess for a week while Mitchell gave the defense time to look through police files and see what they may not have received during the pretrial process.

Thompson, who spent a couple of days last week at the police station, requested copies of more than 500 pages of documents including a "41/2-inch binder labeled 'other subjects' that contained 15-plus individuals" and reports from confidential informants "connecting the murders to a drug cartel and other murders on the West Coast."

The defense then asked the court to either dismiss the case or declare a mistrial, saying the withholding of evidence violates Ruiz's due process rights under a 1963 federal ruling.

"What we have here is undisputedly hundreds of pages from the police which include people that actually have looked at the photo montages and have identified people other than Mr. Ruiz as responsible or being involved in the shooting," Peter Connick told the judge in arguing for the motion. "Now, in a misidentification case, that is certainly material to the defense."

The attorneys all agree they don't believe Prosecutor Steve Lowe or his deputy prosecutors had knowledge of the information, but question why it never was passed on by Lowe's predecessor, Dennis DeFelice, or others in law enforcement.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny countered that the defense is not entitled "to every police report and everything in the law enforcement file." A number of those reports are exempt from disclosure, he said.

"Actually, there is no showing here that anything here is in the least bit material to the defense" Jenny said.

He asked the court "to use caution in reviewing the claims the defense has made in light of their track record." The lawyers previously have claimed there were documents or other evidence they never received, when in fact they had, he said.

Lowe, who was on his way Tuesday afternoon to Chelan for prosecutors training, told the Herald, "We stand ready to try the case again."

His office issued a news release saying it has "provided the defense with everything in its file and has assisted the defense with obtaining access to information held by others."

"Our office's position is that all information has been disclosed as required by Washington State Court Rules and court decisions," the release said. "We maintain that there is nothing in police files that would help the defendant."

The state is "certainly entitled to form its opinions," Mitchell said.

But just because police and prosecutors believe Ruiz is their prime suspect and that his Mazda RX7 was the vehicle used that night -- based on Ruiz's fingerprint on the car and a receipt inside for the same caliber ammunition found at the crime scene -- doesn't mean that all other information no longer is relevant, he said.

A person in Gresham, Ore., who reported being confronted shortly after the shootings by two Hispanic men in a black RX7 and observed weapons inside the car, could be of evidentiary value to the defense, Mitchell said.

He touched on a separate report from Oregon about a person who claimed to know people who were involved in drug trafficking and about killings in Oregon and Washington, particularly the Pasco body shop slayings. Though police couldn't verify the information or felt it was not credible doesn't mean the defense shouldn't know about it, Mitchell said.

His third area of concern was a report about an Aberdeen person who apparently had some knowledge of the case and after viewing a photo lineup of possible suspects in the shootings did not pick Ruiz or Mendez-Reyna.

"The court does not find the state's argument that because the individual did not pick out Mr. Ruiz in that case that therefore that information is irrelevant or exculpatory," Mitchell said.

The details contained in all of these reports could show that Ruiz is not responsible for the murders, he ruled, and not releasing the documents could impact Ruiz's right to a fair trial.

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