Crime

Prosecutors to call 2 witnesses in Ruiz trial

PASCO — Prosecutors won't be blocked from calling two key witnesses to testify when an accused killer's second trial starts next Monday.

Vicente Ruiz, 45, faces five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder for his alleged role in the shooting deaths of five people in a Pasco auto body shop in 1987.

Prosecutors allege Ruiz was one of two men who gunned down a group of young men while they sanded a car inside Medina's Auto Body Shop.

But after his arrest in Mexico in 2006, Ruiz claimed police arrested the wrong man and insisted he had been in Mexico at the time of the killings. Defense lawyers have claimed Ruiz has a brother with a similar appearance.

Ruiz already faced a jury once, but the case ended in a mistrial.

Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell ruled in Franklin County on Monday that Pedro Mendez-Reyna, Ruiz's cousin, and Diane Garcia, reportedly Ruiz's girlfriend at the time, could be called in front of a jury to answer questions that might shed light on the crimes.

Mendez-Reyna is serving a life sentence for his guilty plea in the murders. His lawyer told Mitchell in February that Mendez-Reyna refused to testify against his cousin, whom he previously has said was his partner in the shootings.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny argued on Monday that Mendez-Reyna should be put in front of a jury and that a jury should be allowed to draw whatever conclusions it deems appropriate if Mendez-Reyna refuses to testify.

Jenny said Mendez-Reyna could change his mind about testifying once he realizes he can't avoid facing the jury.

Jenny also argued that Mendez-Reyna has no basis to use the Fifth Amendment's protections against self-incrimination as a reason to avoid testifying, as there's no chance of withdrawing his guilty plea.

But defense attorneys Bob Thompson, Kevin Holt and Peter Connick argued that Ruiz's constitutional right to confront his accuser could be violated if Mendez-Reyna is allowed to take the stand but refuses to talk.

Mitchell agreed with prosecutors that Mendez-Reyna should be called to testify in front of a jury and said he would deal with the confrontation issue if it arises during the trial.

Prosecutors and the defense lawyer battled over Garcia's competency to testify in the case because she claims not to remember everything from the time of the killings.

Garcia lived with Ruiz at the time of the murders but has told prosecutors she can't remember things that happened then, said Deputy Prosecutor Brian Hultgrenn.

Hultgrenn said an evaluation of Garcia showed she had a learning disability, but nothing to indicate she was incompetent to testify.

He also said her memory loss doesn't appear to cover the entire time period in question -- but only details that would help the prosecution.

"She might have been the closest person in the world to the defendant at the time," Hultgrenn said.

Hultgrenn, Thompson and Holt also argued over whether defense lawyers had met with Garcia and heard her memory loss story in 2008. Hultgrenn claimed they had, while Thompson shook his head and said, "Never happened."

Defense lawyers argued it was prosecutors who had met with Garcia, but they had never given defense lawyers a report on the interview.

"If there is such a report, certainly we will give it to you," Hultgrenn said. "I don't think there is such a report."

Mitchell ruled that the evaluation of Garcia showed nothing to indicate she wasn't competent to testify. He also ordered the report sealed because it contained medical and psychological information that should be kept private.

-- Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com

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