Court hearings for Night Stalker defendant Richard Ramirez took the form of a macabre, repetitious telethon Monday as a judge began reviewing television news reports to determine whether pretrial publicity would prevent Ramirez from receiving a fair trial in Los Angeles County.
Superior Court Judge Dion G. Morrow accepted a 2 1/2-inch-thick legal motion for a change of venue crammed with hundreds of 1985 newspaper articles on the serial murder case and screened two hours of TV reports by KTTV Channel 11, with several hours from other stations still to come.
The hearing is scheduled to continue Nov. 12, 13 and 14. Another defense motion, to consider dismissal of the case because of lack of evidence, was set for Nov. 17.
Ramirez, facing charges in 14 murders and 41 other felonies, slouched through much of the video show, occasionally turning to grin and wave at spectators, among them his sister and a few other well-wishers. When an expert shown on a broadcast suggested that most serial killers are "sexual psychopaths," Ramirez turned and flashed a toothy smile toward photographers and a TV cameraman covering the hearing.
Ramirez looks somewhat different from the television images of the man arrested last September. His hair has grown long in his 13 months of captivity, curling at the shoulders, and his teeth, once described as "badly discolored and gapped," now appear fully intact because of dental work performed during his jail stay.
The videotaped news reports chronicled the first police reports of a serial killer on the loose through the dramatic capture of Ramirez by East Los Angeles residents in September, 1985, through his first court appearances. It even featured Deputy Dist. Atty. Philip Halpin telling reporters, "I'm convinced he can get a fair trial (in Los Angeles County), but frankly the pretrial publicity is not going to help us."
Defense lawyers Arturo Hernandez and Daniel Hernandez, who are hoping the trial can be moved to Berkeley, suggested that the news accounts demonstrate that an unbiased jury cannot be found in Los Angeles County.
The broadcasts included stark accounts of the murders and rapes, along with interviews of frightened people buying guns and learning how to shoot them, nailing their windows shut, pondering the purchase of guard dogs and celebrating Ramirez's capture with a block party. Such reports, Arturo Hernandez said during a recess, illustrate the "hysteria" that made "everyone a hostage" to the so-called Night Stalker.
Halpin contends that Los Angeles County is so populous that a jury untainted by the news reports can be found here. Moreover, it has been noted that Ramirez was also accused of a murder in the Bay Area.
Halpin voiced displeasure over the slow progress of the case, saying he had hoped that both the change-of-venue motion and dismissal motion would be resolved Monday.
The hearing was marked by a rancorous exchange between Halpin and Arturo Hernandez that began when Hernandez offered to have a 3/4-inch videotape of TV news reports duplicated on videocassette. Halpin objected, telling Morrow that "having known Mr. Hernandez for more than a year . . . I anticipate some form of disaster to befall us."
An angry Hernandez responded by suggesting that he might "have to take him (Halpin) outside and teach him a lesson."
Laughter rippled through the courtroom and Morrow brought down his gavel, saying, "The remarks on both sides are inappropriate."
Later, outside the courtroom, a reporter asked Halpin his reaction to Hernandez's comments.
"Sheer terror," Halpin deadpanned. "Sheer terror."
Hernandez said he made the remark "just in jest"--that it was "a way of telling the court that the court should take control."