PASCO -- Despite numerous "starts and stops" over the last two months, jurors released from the Vicente Ruiz murder trial agreed they're disappointed they won't get to finish hearing the case.
The 13 jurors who first walked into the Franklin County courtroom on April 19 gathered one last time Wednesday in their assigned seats for a question and answer session with the judge and attorneys.
They learned Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell declared a mistrial Tuesday because of legal issues, not because the jurors were tainted or had done something wrong.
They also heard this was Ruiz's second mistrial in the 1987 slayings of five men in a Pasco garage. The first trial was over before a jury even was picked.
And they were told Ruiz will remain behind bars -- as he has been since September 2006 -- until his lawyers investigate new evidence and are ready to proceed with a third trial.
But in the end, the jurors were clear they wouldn't mind waiting and would have preferred the judge call a lengthy recess for the defense so they could have followed through on their civic duty. Of the 13, only two said their availability in a month would be an issue because of vacation plans and family obligations.
"We've already invested so much that I was willing to keep investing my time. It's been two months already," said one woman.
A "normal person" only has a few options to be involved in democracy, like voting and participating on a jury, she said. "Yes, it's a little bit of a heartache, it's a little bit of an inconvenience, but we've already invested in the process."
Another juror said before his involvement in the case that he didn't have much interest in local government and the judicial system. But now he's had an "insider's view" and hoped to see the trial through knowing he'd have an impact on the outcome.
"For me, and most people here understand, we'd already dealt with the starts and stops and it was getting to be something we were used to," he said to laughter from his fellow jurors.
Mitchell, who struggled with his decision Tuesday, told jurors Wednesday he called the mistrial because "a number of legal issues, evidentiary issues have risen that had to be addressed outside of the jury."
He thanked the jurors for their patience and attitude through the on-again, off-again trial.
"I also want to apologize for keeping you waiting. I know that we significantly disrupted your lives and that is time that you won't get back," he said. "... I give you back what's left of your summer."
One juror opened the discussion: "I think everybody would kind of like to know why it was declared a mistrial?"
"Did it have to do with us?" another asked.
Mitchell and jury clerk Sara Duncan were quick to assure the jurors they had nothing to do with it.
Mitchell spoke to the group for about 10 minutes, then left the courtroom. The jury stayed for almost 45 minutes while the lawyers answered their questions. And afterward, three met privately with Mitchell in the jury room.
Ruiz, 45, is charged with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree attempted murder. He is accused of going with his cousin into Medina's Body Shop on Oct. 13, 1987, and opening fire on six men.
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. He reportedly named Ruiz as one of the shooters, but hadn't yet testified in this trial.
Ruiz maintains his innocence and claims it may have been another person, like his brother who is said to be nearly identical in appearance.
A juror noted there was "some insinuation" about people confusing Ruiz's face for a relative and asked if that is part of the defense.
"We hadn't gotten there yet," defense attorney Peter Connick said, telling jurors the defense doesn't present its case until the prosecution wraps up. He mentioned a picture that is said to be of Ruiz, and said the defense has "evidence to the contrary."
"Yes, it was coming. We were going to be going back and forth on pictures," Connick added. "... And that was the defense. The defense is misidentification."
He also said the case will come down to one witness, Montes, who is doing time in a federal prison in an unrelated case.
Though the trial started April 19, the first testimony wasn't presented until June 7 because of a lengthy jury selection process and appeals by the defense seeking to have the jury pool scrapped.
A Washington state Court of Appeals commissioner placed the trial on hold for three weeks before ruling the court had picked a fair and impartial jury. The defense asked a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court to review the ruling, but was denied.
Jurors were paid the $10 per diem rate each business day, whether or not they were in court, because they were seated on the case and were required to remain under the court's admonishment even while going about their daily lives.
Total jury costs over nine weeks were $15,549.46 -- or $6,209.46 in mileage and $9,340 per diem, Duncan said.
As the discussion got lively on Wednesday, a few jurors let the attorneys know they took issue with some of the questions they were asked during jury selection as well as after their release.
A federal employee said when defense attorney Bob Thompson asked about her work schedule given the length of the trial, he said, "This would be like a six-week vacation."
"I was pretty offended," said the woman, reminding the attorneys this is a murder trial. "... That's one that stuck with me throughout. A vacation? I think not. I take my job (as a juror) very seriously."
Defense attorney Kevin Holt said he apologized for the attorneys if they ever offended or insulted the panel.
Connick asked the jurors if anybody had read about the trial in the past week while they were on recess. No one raised their hand.
He said the Herald has had "blow-by-blow accounts" of the trial and "one of our fears always is that a juror might unavoidably look at the paper and read about the case that they're sitting on."
The jury had been admonished from the outset not to view paper and TV reports on Ruiz nor discuss the case amongst themselves or with anyone else. However, Ruiz's lawyers have said since the second day of the trial they were concerned about media exposure of the case.
"This is really a fine group of people and I'm really pleased to be associated with them," a woman responded to Connick. "Not one attempted to read it in the newspaper or find out about the trial. I think it's sad you maybe wonder or question if we can hold to that truth."
The attorneys asked the jurors if they thought the court would be able to get another panel of jurors who hadn't heard about the case in Franklin County. The lawyers haven't said if they will renew their request to move the case to another county.
One juror said there are people like her who have lived in the Tri-Cities their entire lives and knew about the shootings in 1987 but completely forgot about them until seated in the jury box.
Another juror said there are many new residents, particularly in west Pasco, who have no knowledge of the case. But he said it was hard for him to say now given the daily news coverage of this second trial.
"People ask me what's going on," he said. "I tell them, 'I don't know. You probably know more about it than I do.' I only know to call in at 4."
Ruiz, who didn't attend the session with the jury, will return to court todayto schedule a new trial date.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; email@example.com