Crime

Judge says Ruiz trial jury not tainted

PASCO — A Franklin County jury will decide if Vicente Ruiz was one of two men who walked into a Pasco body shop in 1987 and gunned down six men, or if his alibi is valid and a suspect remains on the loose.

At least that's how it currently stands.

Just hours after Judge Cameron Mitchell denied a defense request Thursday to excuse the entire jury panel on allegations it was tainted, Ruiz's lawyers fired back by announcing they want the Washington state Court of Appeals to review his decision.

Kevin Holt, along with co-counsel Bob Thompson and Peter Connick, filed a notice of discretionary review, saying Ruiz is "feeling himself aggrieved" by Mitchell's refusal to strike the jury pool.

Mitchell had said he believes the remaining jurors can be fair and impartial based on their responses to individual questioning.

Ruiz, 45, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.

Jury selection in the trial wraps up its third week today. The process will continue even though defense attorneys are asking the appellate court for an "immediate and expedited answer" on whether it will accept the case for review and for a stay of proceedings until the issue is resolved.

"As you can see, this isn't a pointless appeal. There is merit to it. We believe it," Connick told the court.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny objected to the legal maneuvering, saying he doesn't think it is the type of issue the Court of Appeals will take.

While the matter is sorted out by the higher court, Mitchell said the entire remaining jury panel will be brought back for group questioning Monday morning. He hopes to have a 12-member, two-alternate jury in place that day.

Prosecutors allege Ruiz, who has been in custody since September 2006, was one of the shooters who opened fire inside Medina's Body Shop on Oct. 13, 1987.

Five men died and a sixth man was wounded but survived. He reportedly named Ruiz as a suspect.

Ruiz's cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, already was convicted for his role in the shootings and is serving a life sentence.

As a part of his plea deal, Mendez-Reyna named Ruiz as the second suspect and agreed to testify against him. But in recent months he said that he would not talk if forced to take the witness stand.

Ruiz's lawyers have long maintained their client was not in the shop. They have suggested it may have been his brother, who is said to be nearly identical in appearance, and claim Ruiz was in Mexico at the time of the killings.

Ruiz first faced a jury in 2008, but the case ended in a mistrial when the defense requested further DNA testing on a piece of evidence.

This trial started April 19 with 162 prospective jurors. Less than 50 remain, and Jenny said Thursday that only 30 are needed to actually seat a jury.

Defense lawyers wanted Mitchell to move the trial to another county. They argued people have been exposed to an excessive amount of media coverage in the 22-year-old case and that the prospective jurors either were involved in or overheard conversations about case details or had opinions on Ruiz's guilt.

"I think this is one of those remarkable occasions where it will save the county resources to get a jury that is neutral and impartial and fair, rather than getting one that is tainted with publicity and the opinions of witnesses," Connick said.

The Seattle lawyer made his first appearance Thursday at Ruiz's trial after being involved for months in a death penalty case in King County.

Connick also argued that in his "almost 30 years of doing trials," he never had seen a pool with so much knowledge of a case or with police witnesses who had been called as prospective jurors and allowed to sit with the rest of the pool and potentially discuss their opinions on the case.

"Even if that conversation didn't take place, there were at least 10 to 12 other conversations we're claiming amongst jurors," he said. "It's not merely a discussion of the facts but actually an opinion with more details than our court had given."

Jenny, however, said the best test to see if a change of venue really is needed is to "attempt to select a jury, and we are making good progress on that."

"There is no indication here that there is such a widespread bias in the community that it will make it impossible to sit on a jury," he added.

Jenny said jurors are called in at random and the police officers who are witnesses didn't know what case they had been brought in on until they were in the courtroom.

Mitchell ruled the court has "taken substantial time" along with the attorneys over the past three weeks interviewing numerous jurors about what they may have heard. And he said many were excused, some for conflicts and others for information they may have received or knowledge through media sources.

Mitchell said his decision that the jury is not tainted could change after the lawyers do general questioning of the remaining pool.

Also Thursday, Mitchell ruled that there was no governmental misconduct by the Franklin County Clerk's Office jury administrator that "requires a dismissal, or that was so egregious it could not be remedied by removal of an individual juror or by the interviewing of individual jurors."

Earlier, the defense filed a motion to dismiss the entire case, blaming the clerk's office for "state misconduct and/or mismanagement" because it failed to separate out the police officers who are witnesses from being on the jury panel.

Mitchell said it would have been "wholly improper" of the jury clerk to have gone through the jury responses and segregated those witnesses from the rest of the jury. That would have been grounds for a dismissal for governmental misconduct, he said.

Jury selection continues this morning in the Franklin County Courthouse.

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

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