Court: Death-row inmate should get new chance to show lawyer failed him

An Arizona death-row inmate convicted of a 1989 double murder should get another chance to show that his attorney – who had never handled a capital case before – did not adequately represent him at trial, a federal appeals court said. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that an Arizona death-row inmate should have another chance to prove his attorney did not fully investigate evidence of his intellectual disabilities in his trial for a 1989 Phoenix double-murder.

A three-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said there is a “reasonable probability” that David Ramirez’s sentencing would have been different if his attorney at the time had presented evidence of the defendant’s low IQ and a history of abuse, sexual assault, neglect and developmental issues.

“The (sentencing) judge did find several mitigating factors, and only three aggravating factors,” Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote in his opinion. “Had the evidence of a mental impairment been introduced, as well as the evidence of the level of abuse Ramirez suffered, there is a substantial claim that the judge ‘would have struck a different balance.'”

The U.S. Attorney’s office for Arizona did not respond to request for comment on the case Wednesday. But Tim Gabrielsen, an assistant federal public defender for Arizona, said that while he welcomed the decision, “it’s regrettable that it took this long” to reach this point.

Ramirez has spent nearly 30 years on death row for the stabbing deaths of his girlfriend, Mary Gortarez, and her 15-year-old daughter, Candie, in Gortarez’s Phoenix apartment on May 25, 1989.

Related story

Police were called to the apartment that morning by neighbors who reported hearing thuds and sounds of struggle for around half an hour. When they arrived, police found what appeared to be the scene of a violent struggle with Ramirez “apparently intoxicated” and covered in blood, which was splattered throughout the apartment.

Gortarez was found on the living room floor, stabbed 18 times in the neck, back, stomach and left eye. Candie’s naked body was found in a bedroom, stabbed 15 times around her neck. Neither victim died immediately and records say Ramirez sexually assaulted Candie before she died.

A jury convicted Ramirez guilty on two counts of first-degree murder in December 1990.

At sentencing, Ramirez presented a sentencing report that talked about his chaotic childhood, a history of sexual and substance abuse, a poor school record and the fact that his state of mind was muddled at time of the murders by drugs and alcohol. Three family members testified to varying levels of maternal support for Ramirez, and two prison guards said he was a good worker in prison.

The sentencing judge agreed there were several mitigating factors for Ramirez, but also found three aggravating factors: two previous felony convictions, multiple murders and the “especially cruel, heinous or depraved manner” of the killings. He sentenced Ramirez to death.

In his most recent appeals, however, Ramirez has argued that the public defender who represented him at trial – who had never handled a capital case before – failed to investigate and present evidence that would have weighed in his favor.

The attorney agreed, saying in later court filings that she was unprepared to represent “someone as mentally disturbed as David Ramirez, especially in a capital case.” She relied on the psychologist’s finding that Ramirez was “well within the average range of intelligence.”

But they psychologist said he would not have reached the findings he did if the attorney had presented him with fuller records on Ramirez’s background. Those would have led to different tests that showed Ramirez with an IQ in the 70 to 77 range.

David Ramirez has been on Arizona’s death for almost 30 years for the 1989 stabbing deaths of Mary Gortarez and her daughter, Candie, 15, in their Phoenix apartment. (Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Corrections)

The appeals court said the evidence presented at Ramirez’s sentencing painted a “relatively innocuous” picture compared to what later emerged.

Family members who were subsequently contacted said Ramirez had little relationship with his mother, who routinely beat him with “anything she could get her hands on, including electrical cords and shoes.” She reportedly drank while pregnant with Ramirez and told family members she would put beer in Ramirez’s bottle when he was young.

He was often left in charge of younger siblings, one of whom died of exposure after their mother left them at home without heat one night while she went out partying. Family members noted developmental delays in the young Ramirez, who did not know how to comb his hair or use utensils, for example.

The appeals court ordered the case back to district court to more fully investigate Ramirez’s claim of an ineffective attorney. It turned down his other appeals, including a claim that courts improperly rejected his mitigating circumstances, and refused to grant permission for other issues.

In a partial dissent, however, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that Ramirez should be allowed to pursue his claim that he should not receive the death penalty because he is intellectually disabled.

Gabrielsen agreed, saying Berzon’s dissent could be the basis of a future appeal.

“I think she hit it right on the head,” he said. “I think she was absolutely on the money.”

Sustainability Reporter, Washington, D.C.