SPOKANE — A juror who has been on the Vicente Ruiz murder trial since mid-November was excused Tuesday because he was in a hallway when corrections officers were walking the handcuffed defendant into the courtroom.
A Spokane County jail deputy told the court he came out of a secured area inside the courthouse to find the juror in the hall talking on his cell phone.
The man was outside the jury room before morning proceedings started.
He was asked to step around the corner and, after being “somewhat difficult,” agreed, said Deputy Andrew Brown. “He saw me coming out, but I don’t believe he saw Mr. Ruiz.”
Ruiz, 46, is on trial in the 1987 shootings inside Medina’s Body Shop in Pasco. He is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder.
His first two trials ended in mistrials. This trial was moved to Spokane because of extensive media coverage. Jury selection started Nov. 9, with a jury seated Nov. 16. Tuesday was the 13th day of testimony.
Ruiz is typically moved between the jail and courtroom during trial recesses and the jurors go to their jury room. In-custody defendants are walked down public hallways.
Defense attorney Bob Thompson said Tuesday the defense team has been taking “great strides” to hide Ruiz’s custodial status, and though he “may not have been seen, I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist.”
During a break in testimony, Thompson asked that the man be dismissed.
Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn said there was no reason for that.
“Everybody knows he (Ruiz) is in custody. We just don’t want to give the appearance of guilt,” he said, referring to testimony the jury has heard that Ruiz’s ex-girlfriend had visited him several times in jail in recent years.
Also, two corrections officers have been sitting in the courtroom gallery since the first day. Defense lawyers were concerned the dismissed juror would make the connection to their client Tuesday when the juror saw Brown in court.
Judge Cameron Mitchell paused for a while before saying he didn’t think the juror actually saw Ruiz. He also said Hultgrenn’s points were well taken.
“I do believe that out of abundance of caution, that I’m going to excuse juror No. 1 in the event that he did make that connection and that might impact ... his decision-making process in this case,” Mitchell ruled.
The bailiff excused the man before bringing the jury back into the courtroom. The defense initially wanted Mitchell to question the man about whether he had told his fellow jurors about what he saw but withdrew that request.
Two alternates now remain on the jury.
Prosecutors are wrapping up their case, with Thompson, Peter Connick and Kevin Holt expected to start calling defense witnesses Friday.
Deputy Prosecutors Frank Jenny and Hultgrenn tried to tie up loose ends Tuesday by calling five people for brief testimony.
Eileen Slavin of the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab’s latent print unit said in September 1993 that she was asked to compare a smudged print taken from the “back glass” of a Mazda RX-7 to Ruiz’s fingerprints from his 1983 arrest for driving while intoxicated.
The print matched Ruiz’s left thumb, said Slavin, who found 20 markers in common.
Slavin told the defense that the lab had the capability of doing such a comparison in 1987, but she only received the request from Pasco police six years later.
Asked by Hultgrenn if the passage of time may have affected her ability to make the identification, Slavin said, “No, it didn’t.”
The Mazda was believed to be driven by Ruiz and his cousin the night of the shootings inside the garage. Ruiz’s cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, is serving life in prison for his role in the shooting and named Ruiz as his accomplice, but last week on the stand refused to testify and claimed he didn’t know Ruiz.
Pasco police Sgt. Mike Monroe returned to the stand to say that in March 1994 he accompanied prosecutors and Detective Henry Montelongo to Phoenix, to interview Gilbert Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, then a mechanic, testified Monday that he was outside the body shop just before the shootings but couldn’t remember telling investigators in 1994 that he had seen Ruiz that night. He also had no memory of picking Ruiz’s picture out of a photo montage.
He said Rodriguez did talk about seeing Ruiz come to the body shop before the murders and, when shown the montage, “immediately pointed to the photo of Vicente Ruiz and said, ‘That’s easy. I know him.’”
Rodriguez also told investigators in 1994 that he saw an “RX-7 fastback” through the shop door that night, Monroe said.
Thompson questioned if people’s memories can degrade over time or be corrupted by “external factors.” He wondered if Rodriguez had been reading Tri-City Herald newspaper reports on the crime over the previous seven years and that information may have affected him.
Monroe reminded Thompson that he was assigned to be the note-taker, not to conduct the interview.
“In reviewing your notes, did anybody ask Mr. Rodriguez what outside influences might have been coloring his memory?” Thompson asked.
“No, they did not,” Monroe responded.
“Did they ask if he’d read newspaper articles the Tri-City Herald generated after Oct. 13, 1987?” Thompson asked.
“Not that I recall; not to my knowledge,” Monroe said.
Monroe acknowledged that the picture of Ruiz used in the photo montage may have been the same one published by the Herald and broadcast on television news reports but said he did not know for sure.
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; email@example.com