Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker

Legal Delays

Upon his arrest, Ramirez, 26, was charged with fourteen murders and thirty-one other felonies related to his 1985 murder, rape and robbery spree.  A fifteenth murder in San Francisco also hung over his head, with the potential for a trial in Orange County for rape and attempted murder.

Richard Ramirez flashing the devil sign
Richard Ramirez flashing the
"devil sign"

Early in the case, two public defenders were appointed to Richard Ramirez, but he disliked them.  Another defense attorney came and went before the Ramirez family retained Daniel and Arturo Hernandez (not related).  They had never before tried a death penalty case, but had worked together on homicide cases.  Their presentation wasn't helped much when at the arraignment in October 1985, Ramirez flashed a pentagram drawn on his palm and shouted, "Hail Satan!"

Apparently this kind of behavior raised anxiety levels, because on another occasion when the courtroom lights suddenly went out, the deputy marshals drew their pistols and told everyone to hit the floor.  They then dragged Ramirez out of the courtroom.

The Hernandezes began their long list of pre-trial motions by filing for a change of venue, insisting that the adverse publicity in Los Angeles County had infected the entire community, and hence, the jury pool.   Ramirez could not receive a fair trial, they claimed, because many middleclass people in the area had an image embedded in their consciousness of the Night Stalker breaking into their homes.  In fact, a survey they had done indicated that 93% of 300 people polled had heard about Ramirez, and the majority believed that he was guilty.

On January 10, 1987, the Los Angeles Times* reported the decision in this thirteen-day hearing—a taste of things to come.  Judge Dion Morrow said that given the substantial pool of potential jurors in the county, he did not believe that argument was sound.  "This is the largest community, I think," he stated, "of any court system in the country."   As Ramirez was led in chains from the courtroom, he grinned at his growing coterie of female supporters.  Some believed in his innocence.  Others just thought he was cute.

In another hearing, Judge Elva Soper granted a request for a gag order on both sides.

By May, a trial date was set for the end of September.  That proved to be highly optimistic.  This case was going to spread into other states and even Mexico, seeking witnesses and evidence.   The defense team would also introduce an exhausting round of delays, from appeals to out-of-town interviews to outright disappearances.

Ramirez actually testified in pre-trial proceedings, clad in a three-piece gray suit and red tie.  He denied that he had spontaneously told Sergeant Ed Esqueda upon his August 31 arrest, "I did it, you know.  You guys got me, the Stalker."  His lawyers said that the officer had not recorded the statements and they wanted them stricken.  Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan, who would sit for the trial, denied the motion.  (Sergeant George Thomas would later testify at the trial that he wrote down that Ramirez had said, "Of course I did it.  So what?  Shoot me.  I deserve to die."  Then he had hummed a tune called "Night Prowler.")

Other than that appearance, Ramirez sat through most of his numerous hearings, slouching in his chair, drumming his fingers on the table, and bobbing his head as if listening to rock music.  He seemed oblivious to the seriousness of the charges.

When the Hernandezes insisted throughout the final months of 1987 that they needed more time to prepare, the trial date was moved to February.  They considered buying more time by pursuing the Orange County trial first.

In November, to avoid an extra trial, one murder and one felony count were dismissed.   All the prosecution had for the murder was the delayed statement of a witness who had spotted Ramirez a block from the crime scene.  Then Judge Tynan also said that he would not allow Ramirez to leave the county, which meant he could not be arraigned in Orange County.   The defense attorneys, seeking another ploy, prepared to ask for at least six separate trials to avoid having cases with little good evidence become stronger by association with those that had it. 

By January, it appeared that the trial for case # A 7771272 would be postponed another six months, because an appellate court required that the prosecution team supply defense attorneys with records of all crimes over a period of six months in Los Angeles County of a "similar nature" to those of Ramirez.   This was a move by the Hernandezes to link some of those that Ramirez was charged with to other cases and possibly other offenders.  Prosecutor Phil Halpin called this an "onerous burden" for the cops and asked the court to reconsider.  Both sides took it to the state Supreme Court, which would not hear it. 

In March, San Francisco authorities had tentatively linked Ramirez to four homicides, a rape, and ten burglaries, but since they had no physical evidence in most of those crimes, they had narrowed their focus to one killing (Peter Pan), one attempted murder (Pan's wife), and a burglary that had yielded evidence that led to discovering Ramirez's last name.  They were awaiting the conclusion of the LA trial to decide on a date.

In July, as the case neared three years since the arrest, the Times reported that Ramirez had decided against entering a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.  The judge ordered jury selection to begin.  The paper quoted the judge as estimating (correctly) that this alone could take six to eight months.  The Hernandezes had sought to have Tynan disqualified based on prejudice against their client.  They did not succeed, but once again they claimed they needed more time to prepare.

Impatient with the defense motions (mostly to suppress evidence) that numbered to nearly one hundred, LA County prosecutor Phil Halpin finalized his case and filed the charges, taking the defense by surprise.   He claimed he had nearly 1,000 potential witnesses and hundreds of thousands of pages of statements, reports, and photographs.  Admitting that it was one of the "most complicated criminal cases" he had seen, he projected a two-year-period for the trial.   Thus far, the case had cost over one million dollars and one witness had already died. 

The defense asked for yet another extension, but it was time to begin.

 

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*The account of the trial was taken from reports from 1987-1989 in the Los Angeles Times, with special thanks to John Timpane.

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