Unreasonable Doubts

Justice may be blind, but Dallas jurors aren't--particularly when it comes to race

There are a lot of questions surrounding the murder of 20-year-old Rogelio Chin.

Who did it isn't one of them.
Dallas police don't know why David Paz Ramirez, a 22-year-old two-time felon from Pleasant Grove, and two buddies were speeding down Stemmons Freeway in pursuit of Chin, who was at the wheel of his blue Taurus around 3 a.m. on December 9, 1996.

Authorities aren't certain why Ramirez--leaning out of the passenger window of a friend's black pickup--squeezed off eight rounds from his 9mm pistol.

One of those slugs perforated the back of Chin's skull, traveled through his cerebellum, and lodged in the base of his brain, which ceased functioning even before his car crashed into a stone sign in front of the American Heart Association's Dallas office.

A front-seat passenger in Chin's car says Ramirez and his pals might have been trying to hijack the car, which was decked out with gold Dayton wheel rims. But police have other witnesses who suggest that Chin was shot and killed because of a drug deal gone bad.

Contrary to the brand of criminal law that's practiced on prime-time TV, prosecutors in Texas courts don't need to prove a motive. They simply must show beyond a reasonable doubt who did the killing and how deliberate he or she was. In this instance, the answers were plain.

There was an eyewitness in Chin's car who picked Ramirez out of a photo lineup, then fingered him from the witness stand as the man who hung out the window and fired the shots. A second witness spotted Ramirez in that distinctive black truck just minutes earlier that night, and saw him tuck a pistol into his pants.

Even more damning, Ramirez's girlfriend, who told police he whacked her over the head with an iron the day after the shooting, revealed to a Dallas homicide detective that Ramirez had confessed to her about the shooting. Her retelling of his account contained details that could have been known only by someone who was there.

Despite all the evidence--which the lawyers breezed through in just over a day in September--this somehow turned out to be anything but a slam-dunk prosecution.

By the end of about seven hours of jury deliberations, 11 jurors had found their way to declaring Ramirez guilty. But a 36-year-old woman, the only Hispanic on a jury that contained two African-Americans and nine Anglos, saw nothing but ambiguities. "She told us she grew up in Oak Cliff, and these guys get picked up all the time and accused of things they didn't do," recalls one juror, a 49-year-old North Dallas businessman. "She wasn't convinced of anything. She wouldn't concede that anything was clear."

After two days of deliberation, the jury's steadfast hold-out prompted state District Judge John Creuzot to declare a mistrial.

Late last month, a second trial was held at considerable expense--the court-appointed defense alone cost taxpayers an additional $5,600--and jurors took little time in finding Ramirez guilty of murder. "It was so cut and dried, we were very surprised to hear it had gone to a jury before," recalls Linda Stevens, a 30-year-old accountant who was the jury foreman in the second trial. "There wasn't any doubt about who shot that poor kid. The evidence was overwhelming."

Hung jury cases such as this have multiplied in Dallas over the past several years.

In 1988, only 3 percent of the 596 felony criminal cases tried in Dallas County resulted in hung juries, county records show. In 1995 and 1996, this figure was approaching 10 percent.

In 1995, the year the O.J. Simpson murder case brought trans-racial divisions in the criminal justice system into sharp relief, 65 of the 690 felony trials in state courts in Dallas resulted in hung juries.

"The 11-to-ones, 10-to-twos, nine-to-threes, those generally have racial overtones," says Dallas defense attorney Tim Banner. "I don't think it does anyone a service, but these things do happen."

Says Norm Kinne, first assistant district attorney, "My opinion is, it happens sometimes. Some juries do hang along racial lines. People do lie their way onto juries. It happens more than it used to, but I have no way of knowing which ones hang because of that, and which ones hang because of reasonable doubts based on the evidence. If they hang for those reasons, fine."

For the most part, minority jurors in Dallas are as likely to convict or not convict as Anglos, judges and attorneys agree. The jury that ended up convicting Ramirez in his second trial included two Hispanics, an African-American, and a man of Asian descent. But some Dallas prosecutors and attorneys--and academics who've studied jury behavior in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles--say there is a small set of minority jurors who hold out because of poor experiences with the police, or religious beliefs, or the feeling that they don't want to be one to send another black or Hispanic man to jail.

"There clearly is a phenomenon going on, although it's difficult to get beyond anecdotal evidence," says Jeffrey Rosen, who teaches at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., and has studied juror hold-outs in that city's courts. "People just don't tell you they had unreasonable doubts based on racial differences. Accounts of what went on during deliberations are all one can go on."

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