Crime - Sacto 911

Two trials on tap over 2009 Sacramento jail killing

In an odd but purely coincidental conflation, one killing in the downtown jail is making for two trials this month in Sacramento Superior Court.

The first goes Tuesday when jury selection begins in the civil suit filed by the mother of the Evaristo Ramirez, 25, a day laborer arrested on a DUI who was beaten and strangled six years ago in his cell.

On Wednesday, Richard Russell Harden, 50, a onetime scuba diver for the Aviation Survival Training Center at Lemoore Naval Air Station, is scheduled to go on trial for murder in the Feb. 17, 2009, Ramirez killing.

None of the lawyers interviewed in the case think the civil and criminal cases bumping into each other will create any insurmountable problems. Harden’s defense attorney, Linda Parisi, said she’ll be watching, however, to make sure the jail deputies’ testimony in the Ramirez suit remains consistent with what they say on the witness stand against her client.

At worst, she said, “I think it may cause a little delay in the criminal case. It’s difficult to have both of those matters pending in the same courthouse at the same time.”

Jesse Ortiz is the plaintiff’s lawyer in the civil suit. He filed the wrongful-death action in September 2009, two months after Harden’s preliminary hearing, during which a Sacramento police officer’s testimony suggested there may have been a more volatile element to what at first appeared to be a straightforward strangulation and blunt-force trauma killing of one inmate by another.

Harden had been taken into custody the day before the killing for a hammer attack on a Latina employee at the Home Depot on Folsom Boulevard. At Harden’s preliminary hearing in July 2009, Officer Marcus Frank testified that the security officer at the Home Depot who subdued Harden during the assault told police the defendant verbally protested when he was being taken down, “You should let me go. They come over the border and take all of our jobs.”

Ortiz’s suit filed on behalf of Ramirez’s mother, Gabriela Ventura Linares, initially charged that Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department was negligent in placing the racially hostile Harden in a jail cell with a Mexican national.

The negligent-placement accusation, however, was knocked out of the case in a ruling last month by Judge Raymond M. Cadei. The California Government Code, the judge ruled, immunizes public employees from injuries that may result from acts of discretion – such as the classification and housing placement of county jail inmates.

The judge’s rulings eliminated Sacramento County and four deputies named as defendants.

All the judge left for the plaintiffs to pursue was the allegation that one jailhouse deputy failed to respond in a timely fashion to an emergency alarm button pushed by an inmate in a cell near Harden and Ramirez’s.

“There is evidence that an inmate in a cell close to Decedent’s pressed his emergency call button when he heard grunts and thuds emanating from Decedent’s cell before Decedent was discovered unresponsive,” Cadei wrote in his final summary judgment ruling issued Jan. 22. “This evidence supports a reasonable inference that the inmate attempted to report an emergency.” The same inmate witness, however, said that neither the remaining defendant deputy, identified as Patrick Rowe, nor his shift partner “responded to the call for 20 minutes.”

Cadei’s ruling left the plaintiffs’ case to hang on the testimony of a single inmate witness, a convicted burglar and identity thief named Earl Grays, 46, who was in jail at the time on a probation violation.

“Earl Grays is our primary witness,” Ortiz said an interview.

Grays told investigators he rang the emergency alarm button but that nobody responded to the Harden-Ramirez cell until about 3:30 p.m., when Deputy Rowe showed up to serve the evening meal – and found Ramirez dead in his bunk. Grays estimated the elapsed time at 20 minutes.

The inmate is expected to testify either Wednesday or Feb. 23, Ortiz said.

Ortiz said he is disappointed the judge excluded all his claims on the classification issue, which would have allowed him to delve into Harden’s racial attitudes.

“But it doesn’t change the fact they should have responded to the call and they didn’t,” Ortiz said. “Had they responded, my client’s son would not be dead.”

Van Longyear is the lead attorney from the private firm that represented Sacramento County and is still representing Deputy Rowe. He declined to comment for this story.

In his trial brief, Longyear said Rowe will testify at trial that he was not in the control booth when the inmate pushed the emergency call button. Longyear said another deputy who is not named in the wrongful-death suit was in the control booth at the time the alarm was sent.

While the hot-button racial question has been excluded from the trial, the equally inflammatory immigration issue looks like it will remain in play.

Ramirez was an illegal immigrant employed as a construction worker at the time of his death. Ortiz initially sought to keep the slain man’s immigration status away from the jury’s consideration. Longyear argued in pretrial motions that Ramirez’s immigration status will become relevant if the plaintiffs win on the wrongful-death action and the matter of economic damages comes into play because Ramirez’s earning power would have been greatly diminished as an undocumented worker.

Ortiz said in an interview he might drop his effort to exclude any reference to Ramirez’s immigration situation, that any possible juror bias could be ferreted out when the lawyers question prospective panelists.

“We’re going to lay it all out there and question the hell out of everybody,” Ortiz said.

Harden, meanwhile, is listed in online court records as having pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the murder charges.

Parisi said it will be up to her client to make that determination at trial, but that as of Friday morning, she did not think Harden would go ahead with that plea.

The defense lawyer also said she did not think Harden’s racial attitudes are “a big part of the case at all.” Friends, family, co-workers interviewed by The Sacramento Bee four years ago – even a Latino woman Harden had evicted from a rental property he owned – all disputed any portrayal of Harden as a racist.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the case.

Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.