Friday, February 6, 2009

Murder trial begins:Couple maintains innocence in death of adopted daughter

Bettie Ruth Ramirez and her husband Ruben Steve Ramirez leave the Gonzales County Courthouse Monday evening, following a day-long jury selection to hear the state's case against them. The couple are charged with child neglect, abuse and murder of their adopted daughter Crystal Ramirez, 8, in August 2007. The trial began Tuesday. Gonzales County Deputy Bob Erwin escorts them. Photo by Nikki Maxwell

Day One - The Final 14 It was standing room only inside the Gonzales County Courthouse Monday as approximately 300 citizens summoned to report for jury duty filled the stairways, and eventually the district courtroom. There were several criminal cases on the docket that morning, but one case stood out from the rest — The reason for the jury.

Ruben Steven Ramirez, 65, and Bettie Ruth Ramirez, 59, are charged with child neglect, and abuse of their adopted daughters Crystal, 8, and Cassandra, 12, and the murder of Crystal. Authorities claim she was starved and beaten to death by the couple in August 2007.

Once all of the potential jurors were seated in the courtroom, District Judge W.C. Kirkendall proceeded with the jury selection process, administering an oath to the whole group and asking them questions to help narrow down the number of jurors.

“If you are not qualified and don‘t tell us now but are selected for the jury, then there may be a trial all over again,” he said.

He instructed anyone with questions about their eligibility to approach the bench and explain the reason why they may not be qualified to serve on the jury. Approximately 27 people lined up to approach the judge with their questions.

The first phase of the jury selection process took less than two hours. Once the judge, the district attorney and both defense attorneys heard from the jurors, the process moved on to the next phase of selection questions.

“In addition to qualifications, we have exemptions,” explained Kirkendall. “An exemption is something you can choose if you want to. If you claim it, I have to excuse you.”

The judge read the list of exemptions twice.

All persons over 70

All persons with legal custody of children under 10 years, if jury service would require leaving child without proper supervision, All high school students Persons enrolled in higher education, Officers and employees of the legislative branch of government Persons who are the primary caretaker of an invalid (not as an occupation)

No hands were raised in the courtroom.

“I have some discretion on who serves on the jury today and can ask the clerk to reschedule you for about six months down the road if the week presents a hardship for you,” said Kirkendall. “Not just if you have to work, that is not a reason. But if something special is happening this week, then in that circumstance I can reschedule you. This case on the docket is expected to potentially last as long as two weeks.”

At that point, approximately a dozen people approached the judge to explain their reasons for asking for exceptions.

After a lunch break, the selection questions continued as television news cameras videotaped the process through windows outside the courtroom.

“The two cases are going to be tried simultaneously,” said Kirkendall. “They are both charged with murder and injury to a child and the range of punishment ranges from minimum of five years to a maximum of 99 years to life.”

The jury’s job is to find the defendants guilty or not guilty. In the second phase, the defendants can choose to be sentenced by the judge or the jury.

“Both defendants have chosen the jury to choose their sentence,” said Kirkendall. “I instruct you to follow all instructions I give you, otherwise it may become necessary for another jury to try this case.”

The judge then instructed the group to not associate with the lawyers, or anyone involved in the case, if they are selected for the jury. He explained that the burden of proof is on the State of Texas, and that the defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“A fair jury is one that is impartial to both sides and can make an honest judgment,” Kirkendall said. “You must set aside anything that you have heard about this case and leave it outside the courtroom. You must be able to follow the law as I explain it to you.”

He told the group to have an open mind and consider the whole range of punishment.

“The lawyers are not allowed to ask you what judgment you may give the defendants and nobody can commit you to any sentence in this case,” he said.

District Attorney Heather Hollub spoke to jury candidates as a group.

“The question today is not have you never heard about the case, but whether what you have heard about this case is true,” Hollub said. “This isn’t going to be an easy case, there are a lot of difficult things to hear and see.”

A man and a woman stood up and told Hollub that they have already made up their minds based on what they had heard.

“We’ve got murder and injury to a child. With murder, the state has to prove that the defendants caused the death,” said Hollub. “You can also cause death by failing to fulfill your duty, and by not providing proper food and nourishment. And when you act knowing what the result will be, then that is with intent.”

Hollub asked parents and grandparents to stand, and said, “As a parent what do you have a duty to do for that child?”

She asked if anyone could not believe that a parent could kill their child. No hands were raised.

“If anyone in here has been abused by a spouse or parent, or has been charged with abuse or has experienced that situation, and doesn‘t want to go through this, please tell us now,” she said.

Four people stood and asked to discuss it privately.

Hollub went on to ask the potential jurors about disciplining children.

“Do you think it is appropriate to discipline and spank children? At what point is physical punishment reasonable? Do you think it is appropriate to withhold food and use that as punishment?” she said.

“If a child is acting up and you withhold food but you notice they are losing weight, do you give them food?”

She asked a mother of three young children if she ever gets frustrated with them and whether it is ever OK to tie up a child or tape up a child and put them in their room.

Her answer was no, never.

“There are going to be hard photos to look at in this case, autopsy photos. Is there anyone here who feels that it would be difficult for them to look at photos?”

Four people raised their hands.

“It will be your job to hear testimony. Does anyone here expect a child witness to testify the same as an adult?”

Only a few hands went up.Hollub read the witness list and asked if anyone knew them or had a relationship with them that would affect their ability to hear their testimony. Several hands were raised and the individuals each explained their reasons.

“It’s your job to determine their credibility on the witness stand,” she said. “It’s very important to have a fair trial. Is there anyone here who is uncomfortable about making decisions in this case due to religious convictions, or anything else?”

One man stood and said that he didn‘t feel that he could make a decision on something that important.

“Does anyone here know the Ramirez’s?”

Seven people raised their hands: A school bus driver, a neighbor from Belmont, a member of the Belmont Volunteer Fire Dept., a school teacher who had their oldest daughter in his class, someone who knew them from a local livestock show, a teacher in Nixon/Smiley, and a woman who says she has heard a lot about the case and knows the family. All of them said there is nothing that would prevent them from making a fair and impartial decision based on evidence.

Then the defense attorneys took their turn. Bettie Ruth Ramirez’s attorney Nate Stark went first, attempting to learn more about the potential jurors and chip away at the number. He spoke about the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the importance of a fair trial.

“Five of the Bill of Rights relate to criminal charges and a speedy trial,” Stark said. He stressed the necessity for impartiality and fairness.
“I think this system is important enough to you too, and someday it may be you sitting here (as a defendant).”
Stark explained the role of a jury.
“The judge in a jury trial is a referee,” he said. “The 12 jurors on the panel will each be judges.”

He asked the group whether they would “take the state’s word for it” if they said a person is guilty.
“Not if they haven’t proven it to me,” replied one man.
Two people said they did not want to serve on the jury due to alcoholic and abusive childhoods and five people said they didn’t think they would be fair jurors for various reasons.
“You’re going to know people in this case, there’s no way around it.”
When Stark was finished, attorney Robert Caine, representing defendant Ruben Steven Ramirez, addressed the courtroom.
“Would you want to be on your own jury?” He asked. “I want you to be neutral.”
He asked them what they expected to see and hear if they were selected. Then he went one by one asking each of the nearly 300 people if they wanted to be on the jury and why or why not.
“There are three possible verdicts in this case: Guilty, not guilty, and no decision,” said Caine. “Will that (no decision) disappoint anyone?”
Some said they were OK with it, but others said ’no, we must make a decision.’“It’s a very serious case,” said Caine.
“These people’s lives are in your hands.”
When the group questioning phase was complete, the attorneys went through the list of potential jurors, asking them specific questions about some of their answers.
The court was excused for a 20 minute recess while the jury was chosen. The potential jurors returned to the courtroom slowly, resumed their seats and talked amongst themselves as they waited to learn if they would be one of the final 14.
“If your name is called, take your seat in the jury box,” said Kirkendall.
As the names were read aloud, there was a low sigh of relief from the crowd.
“Those of you who were not selected, I know you are disappointed but you can go home now,” said Kirkendall.
By the end of the day, nine women and three men were selected to decide the fate of Ruben and Bettie Ramirez. Another man and woman were selected as alternate jurors in case one of the 12 has to be replaced.

The Trial

On Tuesday morning, the jurors were brought in and the judge instructed them on their duties. “You are now officials of this court.” He then read the list of instructions to them as required by law, to ensure their understanding. “You will not take it upon yourself to research this case on your own. You alone must decide the facts in this case and keep an open mind.”
With that, the trial of Ruben and Bettie Ramirez began.
Each count and paragraph of the Grand Jury Indictment against Bettie Ramirez was read by Assistant District Attorney Carrie Moy.

Bettie Ramirez faced the jury and pleaded not guilty to all abuse and murder charges of Crystal, and abuse charges of her older sister Cassandra, but pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to seek and provide medical care for the deceased girl.
Then Moy read each count and paragraph of the Grand Jury indictment against Ruben Steven Ramirez.
He also pleaded not guilty to all abuse and murder charges, but guilty to not providing medical care for a child, a first degree penalty. As he stood and faced the jury, listening to the charges against him, he began to cry.
The judge excused the jury and took a few minutes to speak with the defendants and confirm that they understood the plea. They replied that they did.
During the district attorney’s opening statement, she spoke about what little girls do and how they plan their birthday parties.“Nine days before her ninth birthday party, Crystal Ramirez was lying in a lawn chair wearing a diaper,” said Hollub. “She weighed 45 lbs and was wearing a small child’s T-shirt. Nine days before her birthday she was dead. She was so starved she wasn’t able to walk. She had ligature marks on her wrists and ankles, and pressure ulcers on her back. She was filthy. Her father loaded her lifeless body into the car and drove her to the fire department. Bettie called 911 and said ‘my daughter isn’t breathing, she fell off the trampoline and has diarrhea.’ He (Ruben Ramirez) worked at the volunteer fire department and hadn’t started CPR. Her (Crystal‘s) eyes were dried out and she had been dead for a while. Eight year old girls don’t just die on trampolines. Eight year old girls, who are too weak to walk, don’t jump on trampolines.”
“You’ll hear that Mr. Ramirez admits that he hit her in the head with a cane, and that he taped her up. Initially Bettie didn’t admit to taping her up, but eventually she did. When the Rangers search the house, they smell a stench and find rotten food and trash. As they wind their way through the trash, they stop, and see a door. It has been cut, and there’s a cow bell above the door with a pet gate. The windows are boarded up. They see a lawn chair with tape and bedding on it. This isn’t a bedroom, it’s a cell.”
“It is in that room that Crystal died, starved and beaten. Crystal’s death became Cassie’s salvation. Her eight year old, 45 pound body was taken to the medical examiner’s office and an autopsy was done,” Hollub continued.
“He found 10 blunt force trauma injuries, bruising underneath her scull cap, blood bruising on her legs and ligature marks on her arms. Her organs had been shutting down and her own body had metabolized her fat and muscle -- it was eating itself. She had complete kidney failure and her death was ruled a homicide.
“Child Protective Services transported Charlie (Crystal’s younger brother) and Cassie to San Antonio to The Center for Miracles, and they were interviewed. Cassie told Dr. Kellogg about the abuse she suffered, and the murder of her sister. She had just turned 10 years old and had to wear a diaper. It was determined that she was suffering from malnutrition. She (Cassie) was fed before her visit, but the food made her sick and she was placed on a special diet. She had edema on her ankles, and was missing patches of hair. You’ll hear that she had tape across her mouth and the back of her hair.”
Hollub spoke of the treatment of the children, citing the charges of neglect, abuse, and Crystal’s murder.
Then she walked toward the defendants’ table and pointed at them.
“You are going to hear evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Bettie and Ruben Ramirez abused and murdered Crystal Ramirez and abused Cassie Ramirez.”
The first witness for the prosecution was Diane Taylor, a Gonzales County 911 operator and dispatcher. Taylor answered Bettie Ramirez’s 911 call Aug. 23, 2007. The DA played a recording of that phone call for the jury. On the tape Bettie is heard saying her daughter isn’t breathing and that her husband is taking Crystal to the Belmont Fire Station.
Taylor said she dispatched the Gonzales County EMS and first responders.

On the tape a voice says, “She is already cold.”“They don’t usually leave with them (from the house),” Taylor said, referring to people with need of emergency care. “It kind of seemed out of the ordinary (to bring the child to the fire department - instead of a hospital).”

The defense asked the operator about the nearest hospital in Gonzales, in relation to Belmont where the Ramirez family lives.
The Inquirer is covering every day of the Ramirez trial, however, due to our publishing schedule the testimony information will be printed a couple of days after the event. Please see Tuesday’s issue for more photographs and coverage of this case.