Unreasonable Doubts

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

Ramirez remained in custody until his retrial in late October, a proceeding that must have set some type of record for brevity.

In one day, the lawyers opened their cases, questioned 12 witnesses, closed their cases, and delivered final arguments to the near-empty courtroom.

"The evidence hasn't changed," Judge Creuzot told the lawyers at one point, offering his comparison of the first and second trials.

Moffitt, attempting to inject some new testimony about motives, subpoenaed the boss of one of Ramirez's friends who was in the truck that night. Out of the jury's presence, the man testified that the friend told him the shooting was the result of a disputed drug deal. But Creuzot upheld defense objections that the account was hearsay, so the jury never heard it.

"We have people lying to get a conviction," Perez told the jurors in his summation. "They want a conviction so somebody will say they saw it."

Moffitt, speaking last, said, "His own girlfriend told the detective, 'I shot the guy in the blue Taurus'...We've brought you evidence that is overwhelming."

The jury filed out, and just over an hour later, filed back grim-faced with their verdict: guilty of murder.

Ramirez had elected to have Creuzot set his punishment within the required range, which was 25 years to life because this was his third felony conviction.

When the court reconvened the following morning, prosecutors brought records showing that in 1992, Dallas police caught the then 17-year-old Ramirez in possession of the tires and wheels from a Chevy Suburban that had been stolen from a driveway in southeast Dallas, then stripped and vandalized. He was put on a four-year probation, but after less than a month was rearrested on a cocaine possession charge and sentenced to two years in Texas prison.

In 1994, Dallas cops arrested Ramirez again for stealing a car--this time a 1985 Cutlass that had been parked in front of his house--and he pleaded guilty in return for a four-year sentence.

Perez thought his client had nothing to lose and should testify on his own behalf during the punishment hearing. But he refused, opting instead to offer only his scowling, silent presence.

"He didn't say five words to me the whole time I represented him; I had to prepare a defense without him," Perez says, adding that his only option was to rely on two relatives to soften the killer's image.

"David's been a follower. He's always been real passive," his aunt Kelly Larez told the court. There was the absence of a father "to give him the authority he needed."

His mother, Martha Larez, said several youths her son has known since his pre-teen years held more sway with him than she did. "I think they should be going down with David," Larez told the judge, who asked whether Ramirez had ever held a full-time job. He had not.

The two women's faces were visibly drawn and deeply pained when Creuzot handed down a sentence of life in prison.

Around the Dallas courthouse, more than a few attorneys say that the increase in hung juries has come along with a jury pool that contains a far broader cross-section of the community than it did just five years ago.

"It's happening more now, because a couple of years ago, these jurors either wouldn't be called in, or they wouldn't be picked," says Banner, who handles primarily drug cases.

"There's a definite change in Dallas juries," says defense attorney Brook Busby. "We have a far broader jury pool, and from that broader base you end up with a broader spectrum and more people from the fringe."

The most marked change took place in 1992, Busby says, when changes in Texas law began requiring state courts to draw jurors from drivers' license records, adding to the traditional pool of registered voters. The drivers' license lists added more poor, more minority, and more young jurors. "The drivers' license jurors don't tend to be prosecution jurors," says Moffitt. "They don't identify as much with the system."

Furthermore, several key U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the mid-1980s curbed prosecutors' leeway to exclude jurors on the basis of race. Until the so-called Batson decision in 1986, assistant district attorneys in Dallas and elsewhere were trained to strike minorities in the belief that they were increasing their chances of gaining a conviction.

Perez, who said he's been getting hung juries in about 25 percent of his cases lately, says having more jurors from the same background as his clients makes the state work harder to prove its case. "I don't think they necessarily come to acquit," he says. "They just want to see prosecutors meet their burden of proof. They just don't vote 'guilty' because the police say they're guilty."

Creuzot, who was first elected to the bench in 1992, says he's had other hung juries this year "where I thought we should have reached verdicts." But he says so many factors can come into play in jurors' minds, it is impossible to pin down any one aspect of their background, including race.

In this instance, he says, "The state tried the case better the second time."

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