Crime

Ruiz murder trial put on hold

PASCO — An appeals court judge put an immediate halt to the Vicente Ruiz murder trial on Tuesday so she can review defense claims that the jurors are tainted.

Just hours before attorneys were set to give opening statements in the trial, Commissioner Joyce J. McCown with the Washington state Court of Appeals made the decision that forced court officials to quickly call off the jurors.

"I am going to put into effect here orally a stay until I have had an opportunity to review everything and to do some legal research, and to actually put my decision into writing," McCown ruled.

The Spokane-based appellate judge listened to arguments from Franklin County Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny and Ruiz's lawyer, Peter Connick of Seattle, via conference call.

Her decision is unlikely to be this week. McCown already received "voluminous filings" on the matter and also on Tuesday asked for transcripts of the interviews with the 12 jurors and two alternates.

It reportedly could take the trial's court reporter, Cheryl Pelletier, a few days to edit and complete those documents for McCown.

But Connick and his colleagues aren't waiting for the judge's decision in their attempt to get the jury scrapped.

Later Tuesday, Connick filed a renewed motion for a change of venue, asking Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell to again consider moving the case to another county.

Ruiz, 45, is accused of gunning down six men inside Medina's Body Shop in Pasco in 1987. He is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of first-degree attempted murder.

Lawyers picked the panel Monday after spending three weeks individually questioning each prospective juror.

Mitchell previously denied the request, saying they conducted exhaustive interviews of each jury candidate and would move forward in the hopes of getting a neutral panel. That has not been accomplished, Connick argued.

After Mitchell initially denied the request, the defense asked for the emergency review by the Court of Appeals.

The defense claims that the entire jury pool, including the 14 seated jurors, have been "contaminated by the media, discussion in court and conversations outside of court."

In an attached declaration, attorney Kevin Holt said 92 percent of the seated jury is tainted.

Eleven of the 14 people commented on media exposure during interviews, seven heard in-court conversations about Ruiz's guilt or the trial being a waste of county resources and four heard talk about the case in the community, Holt said. Only one person didn't fall into any of those categories, according to defense attorneys.

"The court made a heroic effort at getting a jury but there is no fair and impartial jury that can be found in Franklin County in this case," Holt wrote.

Connick argued before McCown that media coverage of the crime over the past 22 years has been "sensational," and despite jurors' clear knowledge of the details, it has been the strategy of the state to push through the jury selection.

"I've never seen anything like this in almost 30 years. I think it's obviously pretty serious and significant," Connick said. "... This has been a pretty difficult ordeal for the defense in trying to find jurors that don't know about this case, and as you can see everybody does."

Jenny countered that the best test to see if an impartial jury can be seated is to attempt to seat one. That has been done and the court now has jurors who indicated they can be fair and impartial, he said.

Jenny also noted that the "vast majority" of jurors were dismissed because sitting on a trial for at least six weeks would be a financial hardship, not because they had formed an opinion from their knowledge of the case.

"The trial court has handled this exactly the way it's been handled in cases from other jurisdictions," he said. "The trial court handled it in exactly the right way."

Jenny also argued that a case of this nature with five deaths is going to draw media coverage. But since 1987, Franklin County has seen a 106 percent population increase -- from 39,000 people then to 77,000 now -- so "there has already been a change of venue," he said.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com

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