Crime

Attorneys concerned jury pool in Ruiz trial is tainted

PASCO -- Attorneys for Vicente Ruiz believe the jury pool may be tainted based on statements that potential jurors heard others say about the 22-year-old murder case as they sat around Monday.

Kevin Holt, one of Ruiz's three lawyers, argued Tuesday that he is concerned about the group of 162 candidates after reading their questionnaires. The answers from three different people alarmed Holt, who asked the court to further investigate the issue.

"Just recognizing that human nature is often a common denominator to discuss things ... I don't think it was done with ill intent or intentions," Holt told Franklin County Judge Cameron Mitchell.

Holt suggested that when people get together -- even when confined to courtroom benches for over an hour -- they find something to talk about with one another. In this instance, it may have been trying to figure out what case they were gathered for Monday morning before Mitchell spoke to the entire pool.

"I think we have to really explore that before we can begin any individual voir dire," Holt said, referring to the questioning process for each juror. He wants to know if this discussion included more-detailed information than the statement of the case read by Mitchell.

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

Prosecutors allege he was one of two people who opened fire inside the Medina Auto Body Shop in Pasco in October 1987. Ruiz's cousin already was convicted for his role in the shootings and is serving a life sentence.

This is Ruiz's second trial in the 1987 auto body shop massacre after his first in 2008 ended in a mistrial. The trial started Monday with jury selection, which is expected to last into next week.

On Tuesday, Holt raised the tainted jury issue and the need to question each juror individually in quickly filed motions. He said he had been up past midnight reviewing the eight-page, 22-question forms completed by each potential juror, then started again at 7 a.m. Tuesday and separated his analysis into different categories.

Out of the 162 people on the panel, 48 indicated in their answers that they have personal knowledge of the case or relationships with people involved in the case, Holt said.

That includes one potential juror who was an investigating officer on the case, a woman who knows a victim's family, a former state assistant attorney general who recalled reading descriptions of the scene as a "blood bath" and an employee of a sporting goods store where the ammunition was allegedly purchased, Holt said in his motion. A number of the jurors also wrote that they were family friends or personal friends with different parties, such as the judge, a prosecutor or even court staff.

Media exposure over the years resulted in 121 people giving answers that Holt says need further inquiry as to whether they have formed an opinion or can be fair and impartial.

Fifty-four jurors "made specific statements regarding their ability to be fair or unbiased based on their past experience with matters of a similar nature, inability to set aside preconceived beliefs or prejudices," Holt said. And 18 made requests to talk in private with the court and attorneys, away from all the other jury candidates.

Deputy Prosecutor Frank Jenny agreed with Holt's request to interview the three jurors about conversations on the case they overheard while waiting Monday. He suggested they get more details and see if there are any problems, then decide how to proceed with the court.

Two of the three jurors were questioned Tuesday. The third is expected to return to court today.

One juror said that as they waited for court to start Monday, a couple people around him were making "an assumption" of why they were there based on recent news reports. Someone mentioned the year of the crime but didn't go into more details, he said.

"It wasn't a total discussion of this. It was just something that my ears overheard," the man said. He ended up being released because he just started a new job, which he needs to support his growing family.

Another juror said she had been reading her book when she heard a woman on the bench behind her say, "I hope it's not that murder case from 20 years ago."

She said she stopped listening to that conversation, and couldn't give any more details of what may have been discussed. She remains in the jury pool for now.

Of the 13 jurors who met one-on-one with the court Tuesday afternoon about certain responses, 11 were excused. The majority were for hardships, which ranged from work obligations and travel plans that couldn't be rescheduled, to medical issues that would prevent them from sitting in a courtroom for at least six weeks. A few also were let go because of their connections to law enforcement or their inability to set aside media reports and just listen to evidence presented in trial.

Jury selection continues today in the Franklin County Courthouse.

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

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