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."

In his look at hung juries in the nation's capital, where more than 70 percent of jurors and 95 percent of defendants are African-American, Rosen found that black women were more prone than black men to hold out for acquitting black defendants--and often found themselves arguing with other black jurors. He says this is so because black women make up a larger part of the eligible jury pool, and the possibility that the defendants remind them of nephews or brothers.

His numbers show that the increase in hung juries in Washington and the nine most diverse counties in California tracks along with the pattern in Dallas--although at more intense levels. Between 1992 and 1996 in Washington, for example, an average of 13 percent of criminal trials ended in hung juries, compared with 5 percent in the late 1980s.

As the numbers increase, several academics have come forth with an intellectual defense of the hold-out juror, especially in drug prosecutions and nonviolent cases. In late 1995, Paul Butler, a law professor and former federal prosecutor wrote in the Yale Law Journal, "I now believe that, for practical and political reasons, the black community is better off when some nonviolent lawbreakers remain in the community rather than go to prison."

Butler, who is black, continued: "Considering the costs of law enforcement to the black community and the failure of white lawmakers to come up with any solutions to black antisocial conduct other than incarceration, it is, in fact, the moral responsibility of black jurors to emancipate some guilty black outlaws."

He argues that race-based jury nullification has been going on for centuries. White juries in the South often refused to punish white violence against African-Americans. In the pre-Civil War era, Northern juries with abolitionist sentiments refused to convict escaped black slaves who were prosecuted under fugitive slave laws. And of course, in 1992, a white jury in suburban Los Angeles exonerated a group of Los Angeles police officers who were accused of using excessive force in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

In Dallas, attorneys' and judges' ideologies seem to color what they think about the increase in hung juries and what's behind it. "You hear prosecutors mumbling about juries being crazier than they used to be, so maybe we should change the law so we'll need only 10 votes for conviction," says Ward Casey, a criminal defense attorney who practices in Dallas and Fort Worth. "I guess they don't want anyone to slip through. Instead of a 95 percent conviction rate, they want 100. With 12-zip, we already do a pretty good job of sending a bunch of folks to prison.

"Do some people go down to the courthouse to hang up juries? Yes. Is it a big problem? I don't think so."

It was a problem for Veronica Chin, the victim's mother and the only one of his relatives who attended the two trials in Criminal District Court No. 4, a newish, well-lighted set of honey-oak benches and chairs on the sixth floor of the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building.

"There was so much stress having it go on like that," says the 43-year-old Chin, who sells ties and expensive leather goods at a North Dallas department store. "The prosecutors said they only needed to prove things one way. They proved it three ways."

Chin was the first witness prosecutor Marc Moffitt called. She was there to identify the dead man and say a little about his life and the way he died. Acting on advice of staff doctors at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Chin made the decision a few hours after the shooting to remove her son from life support.

Moffitt, a tall, ruddy man who, from certain angles, looks like a young Robert Redford, led her through the questions quickly and dispassionately. The eight-year veteran of the felony courts was joined by prosecutor Shannon Dodd, a prosecutor for three years, in the second chair. The indigent defendant, who counted a 1981 Monte Carlo as his only possession, was represented by court-appointed attorney Mark Perez, a former Dallas County prosecutor who went into defense work in 1992.

Rogelio Chin, "Ro" to his friends, was born in Brooklyn in 1976 of mixed racial and ethnic background--part African-American, Chinese, Jewish, and Puerto Rican. His mother moved him and his now-14-year-old sister to Dallas in 1988.

"Drugs and crime were horrible in my neighborhood," says Veronica Chin, who had in-laws in Dallas. Rogelio's father stayed in New York, although he still saw his son from time to time. The Chins rented an apartment in North Dallas, in the Walnut Hill-Greenville area. Rogelio, who was held back a year in school, graduated from Lincoln High School in June 1996.

Although the jury heard none of it, Chin had assembled a fairly extensive history as a petty criminal between his 17th birthday and his death three years later.

His mother, who was busy supporting the family with two jobs, says she never met some of the guys with whom he was spending most of his time, young men with prior criminal charges, including drug dealing and robbery.

Between 1993 and mid-1996, Dallas police charged Rogelio with 10 crimes, including six car burglaries, engaging in organized crime, and unlawfully carrying a handgun. He was convicted of three: unlawfully carrying a handgun, and two car burglaries carried out in 1995. He was on probation for the misdemeanor handgun charge at the time of his death, county records show.

Instead of that history, however, jurors heard the victim's mother say he was going to college to study electronics. He was planning to enroll at Brookhaven Community College the very day he died, she said.

Rogelio's activities that night were known only to two young men, Lamont Sneed and Antonio Curry, and only one of them agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. The 20-year-old Sneed, who said he knew Chin for about a year, told jurors that his friend had driven him and Curry to the Lakeside Nightclub on Northwest Highway, where they stayed until the 2 a.m. closing. "We just had a good time and left," Sneed told the court.

Chin and his friends drove a few blocks to the Racetrac gas station on Harry Hines Boulevard, a customary after-hours spot for the Lakeside crowd. They stayed there for a while, but that night police dispersed the crowd. Sneed testified that Chin left the gas station and steered his car onto Stemmons, heading south toward Sneed's house in East Dallas.

"We noticed a black pickup following us," Sneed told the court, explaining what he saw from the passenger seat. "We [had] seen it at the Racetrac. I observed it pull up on my side, and I could see...some Mexicans in the truck. They was like waving their arms like slow down, pull over."

Sneed told the court that Chin just kept driving, and a few moments later, the truck was at his side. "I glanced up, and I could see one of the guys hanging out the window with a gun, and my first reaction was like, say something, say like he had a gun or something. But it was too late, because he had already fired."

Sneed said he could see Chin's "head go down, and I could see blood." Sneed then drove off the road; the car hit a tree and a sign and came to a stop. "Did you get a good look at that person who did the shooting?" Moffitt asked in court. "Yes, I did," Sneed responded.

He then told the court that Ramirez, the man with the slicked-back hair wearing "the white shirt, black tie with designs in it with the black pants and black shoes," was the one.

Sneed told the jury he'd looked at Ramirez's mug shot in a photo lineup four days after the shooting. He "narrowed it down" to Ramirez, but did not make a positive identification at that time, he said.

Perez, who based his case on a claim of mistaken identity, made much of Sneed's hesitancy in making that ID. "You had a chance on December 13 to identify the shooter, didn't you?" Perez asked. Sneed argued about the question for a bit, and finally said it was easier for him to identify people in person.

Another witness, a young woman named Monie Newton, told the jury that she and "my homegirls Rhonda and Toya" had gone from the club to the Racetrac that night and saw Chin and his friends. She had known the victim through a girlfriend, she said.

Newton told the jury she saw Ramirez and another man tuck pistols in their pants, get out of a black truck, and go in the direction of several black teens in the gas station parking lot.

Moffitt expected to cement his case with a third key witness, Ramirez's girlfriend, but he was about to get sandbagged. Literally overnight, Andrea Brooks had turned from state's witness to would-be alibi.

Four days after the shooting, Brooks' mother had called Dallas police and told them her daughter had some information about a shooting. Brooks told Dallas homicide detective Linda Crum that Ramirez had accused her of seeing someone else, and he hit her in the head with an iron during the argument. She said she wanted to press a charge of aggravated assault--and also told a detective about Ramirez's role in the shooting.

According to Crum, Brooks told her that Ramirez was supposed to see her the night of shooting, but he didn't show up. He told her the next day that he "had gotten involved in a situation where he had to shoot a guy out on Stemmons Freeway.

"He had gotten into an altercation at a Racetrac gas station at Harry Hines and Webb Chapel with some guys in a blue Taurus," Crum told the court. "They ended up getting run off from the gas station by the police, and they got onto the freeway going southbound...and some traffic altercation began, and David told her that they pulled beside the Taurus and the back window of the car rolled down, and he thought something was going to happen, so before that he pulled a gun and shot at the car."

While Crum gave the jury that account, Brooks balked on the witness stand when Moffitt asked if she gave Crum a sworn affidavit including those facts.

Brooks told the court she hadn't read the statement before she signed it. In fact, she told the jury, Ramirez had been with her the whole night.

Through his questions, Moffitt indicated to the jury that Brooks had reread her statement the day before in his office and had no problem with it. Jurors were left to decide whom to believe--Brooks, or Crum and Moffitt--when the case became theirs at the beginning of the trial's second day.

The jury, consisting of eight women and four men, was a mix of suburban and urban Dallas. There was a 34-year-old accountant from Garland, a 28-year-old receptionist from Dallas, a 44-year-old German-born nurse from Richardson, and a 31-year-old truck driver who's been a lifelong Dallas resident.

The group selected Sandra Snyder, a 52-year-old Richardson teacher, as their foreman, talked for a bit, then took their first poll. It was 7-5 for acquittal.

"Some jurors, myself included, thought they needed to put the gun in his hand," recalls Tonya Day, a 44-year-old administrative assistant. "They hadn't done that with the physical evidence."

Indeed, police never recovered the murder weapon. They collected some shell casings from the highway, and slugs found in the door of Chin's car and the victim himself were consistent with an attack on the freeway. But they had not been connected to Ramirez or anyone else.

Another juror, the North Dallas businessman who asked not to be named, says he had no trouble reaching a guilty verdict on the first pass. "The evidence fit together very well," he remembers. "We were instructed to disregard the girlfriend's statement, but you still had the detective's account and the eyewitnesses."

The juror says that the panel began going over every piece of evidence--asking the judge several times to supply them with exhibits and testimony. But from the very start, Ana Lozano, the 36-year-old secretary who held out for an acquittal, refused to concede even the most straightforward points.

For instance, prosecutors had asked one of Ramirez's neighbors to identify the black pickup truck involved in the shooting. The neighbor, visibly nervous on the witness stand, said she had seen the truck often at Ramirez's house, which is located in an enclave of burglar-barred brick cottages a few blocks from C.F. Hawn Freeway.

The pickup had distinctive chrome wheels, including five spokes in the shape of a star, the neighbor testified. Right after the shooting in mid-December, someone painted the bottom part of the truck to make it two-tone, black and off-white, she said.

"The woman who held out said, 'How do we know it was the same truck?'" the North Dallas juror recalls. "It got to be exasperating."

Lozano declined to respond to several phone calls requesting an interview.
A third juror, a middle-aged Anglo woman who asked not to be identified, says a poll of the jury, conducted near the end of the first day of deliberations, shifted the vote to a 6-6 tie, and the group went home for the night.

"The witnesses were not absolutely credible, but the more we talked about the evidence, the clearer it got," the juror says. She concluded Ramirez's girlfriend was lying about her boyfriend's alibi and the writing of her statement.

The next day, after more discussion, the vote shifted to 9-3, and then in the early afternoon to 11-1. Lozano, whom other jurors described as defensive for much of the deliberations, became more so when it became clear she was the sole hold-out.

"She told us that her brother got falsely accused of something, that it was easy to have a case of mistaken identity," Day relates. Other jurors recall that statement as well. Lozano told the panel they couldn't see things her way because they hadn't grown up in her Oak Cliff neighborhood.

The prosecutors, Moffitt and Dodd, say they had asked the panel questions that should have brought those views to the surface during jury selection. "I asked if anyone might have a problem with finding someone guilty based on a single eyewitness," recalls Dodd. "She didn't raise her hand."

According to juror Day, things started getting a little tense and moody as the second day wore on and the deadlock set in at 11-1.

"One girl got mad--she was a stewardess, in her 30s--and she got angry. She told the one juror, 'Can't you see anything? You're just doing this because he's Hispanic.' After that, things turned hectic."

Day says Lozano denied the accusation, but some on the panel weren't convinced. "I was talking with a few of the girls after it was over, and we all thought the Hispanic thing had a lot to do with it. I was sure that was it."

Lozano made it clear to the group that she was firm in her beliefs. The foreman wrote Creuzot a note saying, "We are in conflict! We are in conflict as to whether we can come to a unanimous verdict." The judge, deciding not to prolong the stalemate, declared a mistrial.

Afterward, as they got ready to go home, few of the jurors were in a mood to discuss their thoughts with the lawyers, who hoped to gain some insights for the retrial. Lozano simply bolted. The 11 pro-guilty jurors shunned defense attorney Perez, who remembers, "It wasn't just 'No,' it was 'Hell no, we won't talk to you.'"

It took them time to get over it.
Lozano's husband, commenting briefly, says she was upset for weeks.
"It was one thing to have four days of our time wasted," says one juror who declined to be named. "It was another thing to have David Paz Ramirez out there on the street. The whole thing was horribly frustrating. I get irritated just talking about it."

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."

Moffitt and Dodd took considerable pains the second time to hammer prospective jurors with questions aimed to bring out biases against police and the system.

But they say they asked the right questions of the first jury, too. Says Moffitt, "I don't know what you can do when jurors aren't being truthful and aren't playing by the rules.

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