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That claim was reinforced by Gaitan himself, who, in a 1993 declaration, described his relationship with Ramos. "Our relationship was like one you would see in a movie," Gaitan said. "I was the short guy who ran things; he was the brawny guy who implemented. . . . I just made suggestions or asked questions, and Marcelino went along. He wanted someone to give him meaning to his life. I was the only one consistently available for that job." Gaitan continued, "Marcelino is not a cold-blooded killer, nor did he plan to kill anyone. I bear more responsibility for what happened than came out at trial. If anyone belongs on death row, I do." Gaitan received a sentence of 25 years to life.
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Marcelino Ramos was given up at birth by his mother, who had syphilis and bore 11 children while working as a prostitute and drinking heavily. Ramos lived with his adoptive parents in San Antonio, Texas, in one of the poorest slums in the country. When he was five, his adoptive father died, and he and his mother and a half-brother subsisted on $100 per month. His mother died when he was 14, and Ramos and a half-brother struck out on their own, often selling bottles and their own blood to make money to buy food.
In 10th grade, Ramos, who got mostly D's and F's, dropped out of school. He managed to stay out of gangs, but he began using drugs, including marijuana and LSD. It was around this time that he met Gaitan. According to friends and family members, Ramos became infatuated with Gaitan and tried to emulate the way he walked and talked. At one point, the two made a blood pact, pledging to stay together. When Gaitan joined the National Guard, Ramos enlisted, too, but he flunked the entry test twice. On his third try, he passed—with the help of a sympathetic recruitment officer who corrected his answers. But Ramos did not understand his military obligations and missed most of his appointments. Within a year, he was honorably discharged.
After that, Ramos bounced from one menial job to another, cleaning swimming pools and loading trucks. At one point, he got a job as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant, but was demoted to janitor because he could not operate the cash register. Ramos was never able to live on his own, in part because he couldn't read a bill. As time went on, Ramos became increasingly frustrated at his inability to improve his life. Frustration, his attorneys say, combined with excessive drinking and drug use and the persuasiveness of Gaitan, led Ramos to participate in the Taco Bell murder.
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Ramos' motivation is of little interest to the family of Kathryn Parrott. Her older brother, Steven, was upset to learn from a reporter that if Ramos is found to be mentally retarded, he may not be executed. Steven Parrott said he is glad that his parents, both of whom died waiting for Ramos to be executed, are not around for this latest delay. "This is just a game, a loophole they found to buy him more time," Parrott said. "Meanwhile my family suffers on."
Kathryn's older sister, Melody Crooks, said that growing up, she and her sister shared a room. She said that after the murder, their mother laid in Kathryn's bed for months, barely speaking. "My sister, in her life, never hurt anyone," said Crooks, who now has four children of her own. "She was a loving, caring person."
Crooks attended both trials and observed Ramos on the stand. She said she does not think he is mentally retarded. Before her father died, Crooks said, she promised him she would make sure Ramos was executed. "I am a firm believer in the death penalty," Crooks said. "I am still so angry about it. This wasn't an accident. He was out to kill whoever was there. There is never any reason for murder. Never. No one has the right to take someone's life."Christine Pelisek contributed to this story. Sara Catania is a 2002 Crime and Communities Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to reforming the criminal-justice system. The story is one in a yearlong series on death row funded in part by the fellowship. The complete series archive is available online.