Judge refuses to sequester jury pool in Ruiz trial

PASCO -- A Franklin County judge on Thursday refused to sequester all prospective jurors in the Vicente Ruiz murder trial despite defense concerns that the pool is being tainted by both media reports and community conversations.

Ruiz has a right to a fair and impartial jury under both the U.S. and Washington constitutions, yet the public's exposure to the 22-year-old case has had a chilling effect on attempts to get that jury, defense attorney Kevin Holt argued.

So while lawyers continue to question people about their ability to judge the evidence in the 1987 auto body shop slayings, Holt suggested the court should lock up the approximately 70 remaining jurors in a hotel or other location. Then they'd be in a controlled environment with no newspapers, television or radio and away from co-workers or friends who may discuss the case's latest legal wranglings in their presence, he said.

"Counsel believes ... that the defendant cannot receive a fair trial from this jury pool unless the pool is protected from further media exposure and community intrusion," Holt wrote in his motion.

He added that it is all based on comments made by jurors in individual questioning and the "extensive media saturation as evidenced by the questionnaires."

"This community has become intensely interested in this case over the last 20 years that ... Ruiz's guilt or innocence should not be left to a plebiscite, fueled by the influences of a mob," the motion said. "Counsel believes that no further general voir dire can take place until all members of the jury pool have (been) protected from this undue influence."

Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell repeatedly denied the motion, saying he wasn't persuaded by the defense arguments that "jurors are being chilled by what's out in the media."

Ruiz, 45, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court in the shootings of six men inside Medina's Body Shop in Pasco. Five of them died and the sixth survived.

Ruiz was named by his cousin, Pedro Mendez-Reyna, as the second shooter. Mendez-Reyna is serving a life prison sentence for his guilty plea.

Ruiz first went on trial in 2008 on five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. That trial ended in a mistrial when the defense requested further DNA testing on an item in evidence.

Jury selection in this trial startedApril 19 with 162 people.

Prospective jurors completed an eight-page questionnaire that first day and were told to return the following afternoon. Then on April 20 while all were packed into the courtroom, they "were left unattended" and "engaged in individual conversations" for about a half-hour before court started, Holt said.

Statements from jurors over the past seven days show that as they were waiting, several people apparently made comments about the murder case and Ruiz's extradition from Mexico.

Since then, jurors have been dismissed from the pool for inappropriate discussions with fellow jurors as they waited. Another juror revealed this week that he had tried to follow the court's instructions, but it was nearly impossible to avoid talk of the case both in the media and from citizens.

One man told the court Thursday that after the first two days in court, he'd gone back to work while awaiting a callback. He said he was in the lunchroom one day when he overheard co-workers talking about the jury possibly being tainted, and he tried to get up and leave quickly once he realized they were discussing the Ruiz case.

He was excused from the jury, as was a Pasco police officer who has been subpoenaed and questioned about how he'd step out of the jury box to testify on the witness stand.

"I believe this is a case where there is no chance in hell I could be selected to be on a jury," the officer said. But if chosen to sit on what he described as "one of the most highly anticipated trials of the decade," he said he has a firm opinion on Ruiz's guilt.

Jury selection continues today in the Franklin County Courthouse.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531;