A Los Angeles Superior Court judge Monday dismissed one of 14 murder counts against accused Night Stalker Richard Ramirez in order to avoid a separate trial for that crime.
Granting a prosecution motion, Judge Michael A. Tynan dropped murder and burglary counts relating to the slaying of Patty Elaine Higgins, a 32-year-old Monrovia school official.
The prosecution sought the dismissal after defense attorneys asked the court to divide the case into at least six separate trials.
In their severance motion, defense attorneys Daniel V. Hernandez and Arturo Hernandez argued that a single trial on all charges would be prejudicial against their client since the evidence pertaining to stronger counts would have a "spillover" effect on weaker counts.
Tynan denied the motion but agreed that Ramirez should not be tried for the June, 1985, slaying of Higgins, whose body was found in the bathroom of her Arcadia home. She had been sodomized and strangled and her throat had been slashed, authorities said.
In a 69-page document in support of their motion, the defense attorneys argued that the Higgins counts constituted the best example of the need for separate trials because of the absence of physical evidence and the prosecution's reliance on a "weak" identification by a "distant neighbor."
The neighbor, Elizabeth Roybal, testified during Ramirez's 1986 preliminary hearing that on the night before Higgins' body was discovered, she saw Ramirez with a cat perched on his neck and a container of ice cream in his hand within a block of the victim's home.
Defense attorneys noted, however, that Roybal did not report the sighting until after Ramirez's arrest two months later. "Although she discussed the 'Night Stalker' with many relatives and friends, she never told anyone about having seen the defendant except her husband," the lawyers wrote.
Outside the courtroom, Deputy Dist. Atty. P. Philip Halpin conceded that prosecutors lacked the "extra piece of evidence" that would have clearly linked the Higgins counts to the other murders, as required by laws on so-called cross-admissibility of evidence.
"It seemed to be the most controversial incident as far as the defense was concerned," Halpin said. "And I felt that by making that concession maybe we could get on with the trial."
In another development Monday, Tynan announced that he had directed the Sheriff's Department not to let Ramirez be transported outside the county without the judge's written consent.
Tynan said he was responding to news reports that Ramirez's defense attorneys had left open the option of having him tried first in Orange County in connection with an attack on a Mission Viejo couple. He is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday on charges of rape and attempted murder.
If Ramirez refuses to waive his right to a speedy trial in Orange County, judges there must set a trial date within 60 days.
'Must Take Precedence'
Jury selection is supposed to begin in Los Angeles on Feb. 1.
Tynan said he does not intend to allow Ramirez to appear in Orange County Superior Court to be arraigned.
"Our case must take precedence over everything else," Tynan said, noting that it has been more than two years since Ramirez's arrest.
Acknowledging that Ramirez has a right to a speedy trial, the judge said: "I invite appellate review. If I'm wrong, they'll tell me."
In Orange County, Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright said he agreed with Tynan. "He's trying to get his case to trial," Enright said of the judge. "Everyone down here, including the (sheriff's) department, understands the posture of the Los Angeles judge is the correct one, as far as how he sees his case that's pending up there."
Times staff writer Claudia Luther in Orange County contributed to this article.