Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker
The Los Angeles Trial
By Katherine Ramsland, PhD
On July 21, 1988, jury selection began. (At the same time in Orange County, the jury was being selected for the trial of Randy Kraft, accused of killing sixteen young men.) Judge Tynan decided that they would need twelve jurors and twelve alternates, all of whom had to be impartial and also willing and able to serve for up to two years—a rather tall order even for that county. Carpenters were hired to enlarge the jury box. Tynan figured that to get what they needed, they might have to interview as many as 2,000 people (it turned out to be just short of 1,600).
Alan Yochelson joined Halpin for the prosecution team, and throughout the voir dire, Halpin and Daniel Hernandez traded so many insults that the judge told them to take their macho posturing into a boxing ring. He called them both unprofessional. He also assigned a public defender, Ray Clark, to assist Daniel Hernandez, since Arturo seemed inclined not to be there at times.
The team had not yet disclosed their strategy and they still had numerous appeals pending, particularly one asking to overturn the decision made by a judge who had refused to remove Tynan from the case. Ramirez, often choosing all-black garb, began to don sunglasses as part of his mysterious persona. Although he remained shaggy-haired throughout, reinforcing his rebellious reputation, he got more involved in the proceedings.
On August 3, the LA Times reported that jail employees had overheard a plan by Ramirez to shoot and kill the prosecutor with a gun that someone was going to slip him in the courtroom. A metal detector was installed outside the courtroom and even the lawyers were searched. Ramirez seemed surprised, and no gun was ever found.
Finally after several months, a jury of twelve, with alternates, was seated. Then one juror was dismissed for making racially biased statements about the death penalty.
In January 1989, a state appeals court found Daniel Hernandez "deficient" in presenting another client in an earlier murder trial. Reportedly, he was "not surprised" by the decision. He also had a record of seeking delays for medical conditions caused by stress. No one knew why the family had hired such an inexperienced attorney. He continued to seek delays.
By the end of the month, January 30, the trial began with Halpin's two-hour opening statement about the thirteen murders and thirty felony charges. He intended to introduce at least four hundred exhibits as evidence, including fingerprints, ballistics evidence, and shoe impressions—one of which had been on the face of one victim. On that same day, the Times reported that in jail in 1985 Ramirez had referred to himself as a "super criminal," claiming he loved to kill and had murdered twenty people. "I love all that blood," a sheriff's deputy quoted him as saying. Halpin hoped to enter these statements as evidence.
Hernandez declined to make an opening statement at this stage. His strategy remained veiled.
Then the case really began. While some witnesses had a difficult time with memory recall four years after the crimes, others were quite certain of their identification of Richard Ramirez. A few offered lengthy descriptions of their ordeal at the hands of Ramirez, sometimes while he leafed through a notebook of bloody crime scene photos. The defendant, when asked, refused to remove his sunglasses.
Halpin used circumstantial evidence to link Ramirez with the Avia shoes that left prints at crime scenes, with his appearance in the vicinity of the crimes, with his shifting MO, and with possession of items removed from the victims or their homes. He also had fingerprints and "signature" evidence. On April 14, after using 137 witnesses and 521 exhibits, the prosecution rested its case. But then, it had become clear that the defense strategy would be that the eight eyewitnesses—some of whom were survivors--had all mistakenly identified Ramirez. Some other guy had done it all. They were granted two weeks to prepare.
One hurdle the defense team had to jump was the numerous pentagrams left at crime scenes, in a car that bore Ramirez's fingerprint, on the thigh of a victim, on Ramirez, and in his cell. This was a means of linking the crimes, especially since Ramirez was a self-proclaimed Satanist. He had allegedly forced one surviving victim to swear allegiance to Satan as he assaulted her and shot her husband. Besides fingerprint and impression evidence from Avia shoes (allegedly worn by Ramirez, though they could not be found), ballistics evidence showed the use of four different guns, one of which was traced to a man who said he had gotten it from Ramirez.
The defense actually began three weeks later, on May 9, in part because on May 2 one of the prosecution's witnesses was ordered to re-testify. He had admitted to withholding information while under oath as he had described jewelry and consumer items linked to the victims and received from Ramirez. Halpin himself had uncovered the deception and said it was not damaging to the case. Hernandez withheld judgment but looked for an appeal opportunity.
On May 4, the Times ran a piece about Ramirez's state of mind, saying he was gloomy and distraught, and that he did not want to put on a defense. The lawyers told the judge that this was a possibility, although they had advised him otherwise. Tynan granted a recess so they could talk further with their client. Ultimately, it was decided to go on with the trial, and they brought in thirty-eight witnesses.
The defense team essentially claimed that the prosecution's evidence was inconclusive or defective. They took note of the fact that there were many fingerprints at the crime scenes that remained unidentified and that hairs and blood samples were found that did not belong to the victims or Ramirez. In a surprise move, they had Ramirez's father, Julian Ramirez-Tapia, take the stand to say that Richard had been in El Paso, Texas, for eight days starting around May 24, 1985. A rape victim had placed him in her home on Memorial Day, and another attack, which had ended in murder, had also occurred between May 29 and June 1. The defense attorneys also found testimony to the effect that police officers had covertly alerted witnesses to Ramirez's position in the line-up after his arrest.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, an expert in eyewitness testimony from the University of Washington, testified that the stress of assault may have affected the witnesses' ability to accurately recall details. She also pointed out that errors are more likely when the attacker and victim are of different races. Yet she conceded under cross-examination that those victims who had more than a fleeting exposure to Ramirez were likely to be more accurate.
On May 25, defense witness Sandra Hotchkiss claimed to have been Ramirez's accomplice in numerous daytime burglaries in 1985, some of which had occurred during his alleged murder spree, and she said that none of these incidents was violent. She added that he was jumpy and amateurish. She broke off with him but was eventually arrested and convicted of other burglaries.
Throughout this phase of the trial, several disturbances occurred, such as charts falling from easels, Daniel Hernandez perspiring profusely, and evidence being erroneously represented. The newspapers pointed out that not once had the defense attorneys claimed their client was innocent. Hernandez commented in the paper that they merely wanted to prove that the prosecution's case was faulty.
Rebuttal witnesses for the prosecution contradicted the testimony of Ramirez's father by showing that Ramirez was in fact in Los Angeles having dental work done at the time that his father said he was in El Paso. A comparison of Ramirez's teeth to the charts left no doubt, though Ramirez had used an alias. A newspaper reporter, David Hancock, also contradicted the alibi by indicating that he had interviewed Ramirez-Tapia in August 1985, at which time the man had claimed he had not seen his son in at least two years.
Daniel Hernandez was allowed to fly to Texas to seek out more witnesses who might have seen Ramirez. The jury was allowed to go on vacation until July 10. Hernandez found two witnesses, but Halpin made the point that if he'd gone by plane, Ramirez could still have made it back in time to commit both attacks. One survivor had identified a piece of jewelry as hers that had admittedly been found in the El Paso home of Ramirez's sister, yet relatives of the woman murdered in May 1985 had photos of appliances from her home that had been in Ramirez's possession.
In closing arguments that lasted from July 12-25, each side emphasized the weakness in the other side's case and the strengths in it's own. Halpin pointed out that Hernandez had raised issues that he never substantiated, throwing them at the jury as mere diversions. When he was finished, Ramirez turned to the courtroom and smirked.
The judge took two days to instruct the jury, letting them know that a handgun was missing from the evidence inventory, but they had a photograph of it. After nearly a year, the jury finally started deliberations on July 26, with 8,000 pages of trial transcripts and 655 exhibits to consider.
Within a week, one juror who kept falling asleep was replaced. Then on August 14, Phyllis Singletary did not arrive. The judge summoned the jury and told them they could not continue without her, and the court was recessed for the day.
Yet the papers reported that Ms. Singletary had been shot to death in her apartment, and this news passed through the jury and eight remaining alternates like wildfire. They could not help but wonder if Ramirez had managed this from his prison cell and if he might do something similar to another of them. He certainly had plenty of black-clad groupies who came to court each day to show their support. They recalled the Charles Manson cult from 1969.
Judge Tynan called them into court the next day and told them that Ms. Singletary had been shot by an abusive boyfriend. He assured them the incident was unrelated to the case. An alternate was chosen to replace her, although the woman was so overcome with fear she could not walk to her place. Yet more news was forthcoming. Ms. Singletary's boyfriend used the same weapon with which he'd killed her to commit suicide in a hotel. He left behind his written confession. They had been arguing over the Ramirez case and he had become enraged by her disapproval of Ramirez's lawyers.
The defense team tried hard to get a mistrial declared, which Halpin opposed. "The case must not go down the drain," he insisted. Debates emerged in the newspapers over the issue, with one psychologist believing the shooting would unconsciously influence the jury against the defendant. However, the jury foreman assured the judge that they could continue. When Ramirez heard this in court, he shouted that it was all "fucked up" and had to be restrained. He continued to act out during the rest of the deliberations, saying that the trial had not been fair, and he was allowed to waive his right to be present in court. Whenever brief hearings were needed, the proceedings were piped into his holding cell.
On September 20, almost two months after they had begun, the jury announced that they had reached a unanimous decision. Ramirez elected not to attend the reading. Neither did his coterie of girlfriends. On each of the forty-three counts, the jury had voted guilty and had affirmed nineteen "special circumstances" that made him eligible for the death penalty. Upon leaving his cell, Ramirez flashed a devil sign—two finger for horns--at photographers and made a single comment: "Evil."
The defense team asked Ramirez to assist with the penalty phase, because without mitigating factors, he surely would be condemned to death.
"Dying doesn't scare me," he responded. "I'll be in hell. With Satan." He told his lawyers that he would not beg. So to everyone's surprise, they offered no witnesses and did not call him to plead for his life. Halpin said later that this decision had caught him "flat-footed." Clark simply argued before the jury that something was obviously wrong with Ramirez and they should be compassionate—sympathy even for the devil. Halpin reviewed his arguments from the trial and urged them to give him his "just desserts."
On October 3, 1989, after four days of deliberations, the jury said they had voted for death for Richard Ramirez. The female members were crying. Ramirez, who was present for this, was led from the courtroom smiling. "Big Deal," he said. "Death always went with the territory." Later as he was led in shackles back to the county jail, he added for reporters, "I'll see you in Disneyland."
On November 9, he was officially sentenced to death nineteen times. Ramirez chatted with his attorneys throughout. Afterward he added to his dark image with his rather incomprehensible speech to the court: "You do not understand me. I do not expect you to. You are not capable of it. I am beyond your experience. I am beyond good and evil. Legions of the night, night breed, repeat not the errors of night prowler and show no mercy. I will be avenged. Lucifer dwells within us all."
He denounced the court officials as liars, haters, and parasitic worms. He said that he'd been misunderstood. As he was led away to eventually join the 262 inmates already on death row in San Quentin—including Freeway Killer Randy Kraft, sentenced a month before--he asked, "Where are the women?" He then flashed his two-fingered devil symbol at a busload of female prisoners, who called out, "Killer!" That made him smile.