A convicted killer whose death sentence was twice overturned and whose case contributed to the demise of California's liberal Rose Bird court is once again asking that his life be spared.
Marcelino Ramos, 44, who told his victim to "say your prayers" before fatally shooting her in the head during a robbery at a Santa Ana fast-food restaurant 23 years ago is now asking that his death sentence be set aside because he lacked the mental capacity to plan her murder.
Ramos' request was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ban on executing the mentally retarded. In reaching its decision, the court said such killings violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Ramos flunked second grade and later suffered severe head trauma when he fell out of a moving car. As a child, he did not understand how to play hide and seek, and his adoptive mother called him sonso, Spanish for idiot. His IQ has been measured between 62 and 75.
Ramos' attorneys say a man of such limited mental capacity was incapable of plotting and committing a murder. They say that responsibility for the killing lies with Ramos' best friend—a militia-obsessed career criminal who masterminded the crime but received a lighter sentence. "It has always been clear to me that Marcelino is mentally retarded," said Margo Rocconi, a deputy federal public defender who has represented Ramos for five years. "It is a classic case of a mentally deficient individual with no criminal history who, without the influence and domination of a more intelligent person, would not have participated in a crime."
The victim's family members are not convinced. They still want Ramos executed. "He knew exactly what he was doing," said Melody Crooks, the victim's sister. "A retarded person in my mind doesn't sit and plot a murder out. Their mind doesn't work that fast."
Robert Foster, a supervising deputy attorney general who has been prosecuting the Ramos case for about eight years, agreed. He said it will be difficult to differentiate false claims from valid ones. "The U.S. Supreme Court has created a real quandary," he said. "Where do you draw the line? Is it an IQ of 70 or 74 or what? It's going to take years to sort this out through litigation."
Most states with laws banning the execution of mentally retarded inmates rely on the three-pronged definition of mental retardation provided by the American Association on Mental Retardation: low IQ (generally around 70 to 75 or below), difficulty performing simple daily tasks and appearance of the problem at birth or during childhood.
Ramos' petition, now before the California Supreme Court, is one of the first in the state from a condemned inmate. No one is certain how many of California's 612 death-row inmates might follow suit, seeking to have their death sentences reduced to life without parole. Another death-row inmate, Clarence Ray Jr. (whose case was written about in the LA Weekly last week), has filed a similar claim. An LA Weekly investigation earlier this year found 10 cases of possible mental retardation among death-row inmates from Los Angeles County. In five of those cases, the mentally retarded person had at least one accomplice, but in each instance, as in the Ramos case, only the mentally impaired person got the death penalty.
Until California's legislature enacts a law spelling out how mental retardation claims should be handled, the task falls to the state Supreme Court, a conservative body that has shown little sympathy for death row appeals—and little appetite for mental-retardation claims.
In this case, the court's duty takes on a particular irony. It was an earlier incarnation of the court, under the guidance of chief justice Rose Bird, that twice overturned Ramos' death sentence, one of nearly 70 such sentences reversed by the court between 1978 and 1986. Bird and two other justices were then ousted by voters after an intense campaign that focused on the most gruesome details of the condemned inmates' crimes. Among the crimes at the center of that campaign was the Ramos murder.
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The crime occurred just before 1 a.m. on June 3, 1979. High on amphetamines and alcohol, Ramos went with Ruben Gaitan to rob a Taco Bell where Ramos worked as a janitor. Following a plan mapped out earlier by Gaitan, Ramos went to the back to check the work schedule while Gaitan handed the cashier a food order. When Ramos re-emerged, he had a rifle under his jacket.
A co-worker, Kevin Pickrell, thought the weapon was a joke and began to laugh. Ramos appeared flustered at this response and first told Pickrell to put his hands up, then on his head, then on the counter. He then ordered Pickrell and another employee, Kathryn Parrott, 20, to move into a walk-in refrigerator. There, he had them kneel and, according to Pickrell, told them to "say your prayers" before shooting them each in the back of the head. Parrott died immediately; Pickrell survived.
At Ramos' original trial, he said he had not intended to kill either victim, that Gaitan told him to shoot both victims, but he had meant only to "graze" them. After his sentence was overturned and his case went to trial a second time, Ramos cried on the witness stand as he described the crime. His attorneys, who said their client had poor impulse control, said he shot his co-workers because he was upset Pickrell did not take him seriously. Ramos' attorneys also argued that it was Gaitan who plotted the robbery that led to the killing.
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.