Third trial for Ruiz starts in Spokane

SPOKANE -- The third trial for Vicente Ruiz started Tuesday morning in a Spokane County courtroom, with 114 prospective jurors called for the 23-year-old case.

A few eyebrows were raised after jurors were told the Franklin County case involves the deaths of five men and the attempted killing of a sixth.

But Judge Cameron Mitchell said it will be up to the jury to determine the facts of the case and if Ruiz was involved.

Ruiz, 46, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.

The trial was moved to Spokane County because of extensive media coverage during the first two trials. Both ended in mistrials; the first in September 2008 in the middle of jury selection and the second in June after about a week of testimony.

Prosecutors allege Ruiz was one of two shooters who opened fire on a group of men inside Medina's Body Shop in Pasco on Oct. 13, 1987.

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 used the name Jesse Rocio, survived a gunshot wound to the stomach.

Ruiz's cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, is serving a life sentence in the case. He and the lone surviving victim pointed the finger at Ruiz as an accomplice in the shootings.

However, the defense team claims it is a case of mistaken identity and has said Ruiz looks so similar to his brother that they could be twins.

Ruiz was wearing a dress shirt and slacks as he faced potential jurors Tuesday. He is being held in the Spokane County jail during the trial.

Spokane County sent summonses to 345 residents, expecting about 100 people to report for jury duty on Tuesday.

Before the 114 jurors were brought into the courtroom, defense attorneys Peter Connick and Kevin Holt argued with the judge about which table they could sit at for the brief hearing. They initially were at the table closest to the jury box, but corrections officers said they needed to swap with prosecutors because of security concerns.

Two corrections officers are in court during proceedings, with one stationed in the corner behind the defense table.

The defense attorneys refused to switch tables until ordered by the judge. Then Connick told Mitchell the court shouldn't be directed by the jailers as to where they should sit or how they're able to present their case.

"As a matter of logistics, we like to be closer to the jurors," Connick said, adding they didn't want jailers standing over them with guns.

Holt said it makes them feel treated "much like a corralled steer" and gives a "perception of dangerousness," when being close to the jury box says Ruiz is "less of a threat."

He also objected to having a corrections officer seated along the wall behind the table, saying it is intimidating and violates Ruiz's right to attorney/client confidentiality because the jailers could overhear defense conversations.

Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn countered that the defense team had the same setup in Franklin County and didn't complain about it then.

Mitchell ruled that he saw no prejudice to the defense and no impact on jurors. He said it is the practice in Spokane courts for security to have the defendant seated at the table farthest from the courtroom door.

Mitchell also noted the objection about the placement of corrections officers but said he didn't find the defense attorneys' argument persuasive.

Once prospective jurors were brought into the courtroom, it was standing-room only with people packed in the narrow aisle and seated in front of the judge.

Mitchell took five minutes to swear in the jury pool, introduce the attorneys and Ruiz and to give a statement of the case. He then instructed the potential jurors to avoid discussing the case or reading about it in news reports.

Jurors then were taken to another room to complete an eight-page questionnaire that covers everything from hardships and familiarity with the judicial system and lawyers to military experience. One question asked if there's any reason they couldn't be fair and impartial "in a case involving an allegation of violent crime; murder, drug trafficking, assault or the use of firearms."

The trial is expected to go through the end of the year. Jury selection resumes today.