Crime

Defense questions jury pool in Ruiz trial

Defense attorneys in the trial of Vicente Ruiz continued to ask jurors Wednesday if they had overheard conversations about the 1987 murder case or their client's arrest nearly 20 years later in Mexico.

Kevin Holt and Bob Thompson believe the 162-person jury pool in Franklin County Superior Court is tainted and need proof to bolster their arguments to the judge.

So one by one as potential jurors are brought into the courtroom to discuss potential conflicts with their sitting on an anticipated six-week trial, the lawyers question them about what may have happened Monday morning.

Holt and Thompson say there is evidence of several conversations jurors had while trying to figure out why the large group was crammed in a courtroom. The candidates were left in the room for at least an hour before Judge Cameron Mitchell spoke to the entire pool and read a statement about the case.

One woman Wednesday remembered that in talking with another juror, she learned the suspect had been arrested in Mexico.

"I think there was some chatting. Not a lot, but just some chatting," she said.

Ruiz, 45, is on trial for five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. His first trial in 2008 on the charges ended in a mistrial.

Prosecutors allege he was one of two people who opened fire inside the Medina Auto Body Shop in Pasco in October 1987. Five men were killed and one survived.

Ruiz's cousin has already been convicted for his role in the shootings and is serving a life sentence.

The second trial for Ruiz started Monday with jury selection, which is expected to last into next week.

Holt first raised the issue of a tainted jury Tuesday after reading their questionnaires. A few jurors noted in their answers that the murder case was being talked about before court went into session.

Thompson told Mitchell on Wednesday that he has "growing concerns that conversations took place in this courtroom that had an impact on the entire panel." He added that those conversations were improper, even if jurors didn't know it at the time.

Any juror who was involved in a discussion or overheard one could find that their memory is further triggered during witness testimony, which could sway their opinion in the case, Thompson said.

The attorneys also dealt with more issues of media exposure on the 22-year-old case, with one juror pointing out that it would be unusual for longtime residents to have avoided all coverage of the body shop massacre.

Jurors excused Wednesday from sitting on the panel include a Pasco police officer who was a detective in 1987 and later transported an in-custody witness in the case.

Also a court reporter in Benton-Franklin Superior Court was dismissed because he has a "fairly extensive knowledge" of the case and was assigned to cover an earlier hearing. That same man was a prospective juror on Ruiz's first trial in August 2008, and at that time was excused.

Jury selection continues today at the Franklin County Courthouse.

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

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