Court Again Orders Death in Taco Bell Murder Case

Times Staff Writer

Marcelino Ramos, the killer who told his victims at a Taco Bell to "say your prayers" and then shot them, was sentenced to death Wednesday for the second time, despite his claims that the absence of Latinos on the jury deprived him of a fair trial.

"I believe, sir, that I am still entitled to a jury of my peers, which includes my people," Ramos told Superior Court Judge Francisco P. Briseno at his sentencing hearing.

But Briseno, upholding the jury's death verdict of three months ago, said that Ramos had received a fair trial and that "I cannot say that the jury's decision was improper."

This is the third time in which an Orange County death penalty case reversed by the state Supreme Court under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird has ended in new death sentences after new trials.

"It shows that these Bird court reversals have all been a waste of time," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick W. Geary, prosecutor at Ramos' second trial.

Ramos, now 30, was sentenced to death in 1980 for the June 3, 1979, execution-style slaying of Katherine Parrott, a 20-year-old management trainee at a Taco Bell on Bristol Street in Santa Ana, where Ramos also worked. Ramos, who had robbed the restaurant, also shot employee Kevin Pickrell. But Pickrell survived and identified Ramos to police.

The state Supreme Court upheld Ramos' murder conviction three years ago but set aside his death sentence and ordered a new penalty trial only. The Bird court ruled that the jury instructions at the first penalty phase had been faulty.

Steve Parrott and Nancy McCoy, siblings of the woman Ramos killed, hugged each other and cried outside the courtroom after the sentencing Wednesday.

"It's been a long nine years," Steve Parrott said. "Going through two trials like this, it's been like losing our sister a second time."

Pickrell testified at both trials, in chilling detail, how Ramos ordered him and Katherine Parrott to kneel at the back of a walk-in refrigerator, their knees against the wall, and bend their heads forward. Ramos ordered Parrott to put a dirty rag in her mouth, then told the two to "Say your prayers." He laughed when they begged for mercy and then shot each of them in the back of the head at close range.

Ramos claimed at his first trial that he did not intend to kill his victims, that he was under orders from his crime partner, Ruben Gaitan, to graze them so the two robbers could escape. Gaitan received a life sentence at the 1980 trial.

Taking Full Responsibility

At his new penalty trial, Ramos said, "I now want to tell the truth and take full responsibility for my actions."

But jurors later said they thought Ramos was far from truthful, that he evaded answers to most of the key questions from prosecutor Geary. The jurors were asked to choose between death or life in prison without parole.

Three of those jurors were in the audience Wednesday for Ramos' sentencing.

Ramos' new penalty trial was delayed for more than two years, primarily because his attorneys in the public defender's office waged a major campaign claiming that Orange County's jury pool lacked an adequate number of Latinos. The courts found against them.

Ramos' attorney, Joel W. Baruch, said the fact that most people on Death Row in the United States are minorities may be the result of a system that is not fair to minorities.

Baruch suggested that a jury should not be allowed to decide on a defendant's death. Jurors unconsciously are "swayed by race or ethnicity," he contended.

"We all know what happens when a minority defendant kills a white victim," he told the judge.

Baruch had presented witnesses who testified about Ramos' upbringing in poverty in a barrio of San Antonio, Tex. From the time his mother died when he was 14, Ramos lived with a teen-age brother. Despite the hardships, Baruch pointed out, Ramos was never arrested before the Taco Bell robbery.

"This is a guy who, despite all the odds, came through the system crime free . . . lived a fine life--except for 10 minutes," Baruch said.

The judge responded that he was impressed by factors such as Ramos' poverty, his lack of education, his mental deficiencies, and his feelings of isolation.

But the judge said that the crime "substantially outweighs" all of that.

"Mr. Ramos made a decision how he should act toward another person," he said.

Briseno also said that while no Latinos were on the jury, several had been in the pool from which the jury was selected.

When Ramos was first sentenced to death eight years ago, he vowed to the first judge that he would be back in court again.

Ramos made no such prediction this time. Instead, he thanked all the court personnel for the way they treated his family and friends.

But Ramos also told Briseno that he was still upset that the judge once asked him to answer questions directly.

"I'm still feeling anger about that kind of treatment, your honor," Ramos said.

Letter of Remorse

Ramos added that he was sincere in his expressions of remorse in a letter to Parrott's mother but that "I can't change the events of that night."

He concluded by apologizing to the judge for bringing such a serious case into his courtroom and wished the judge "the best of luck and a long life."

At the sentencing, Ramos said the writings and drawings police found in his apartment about his desire to kill police and white people were not a factor in his crime. Nor was a desire to eliminate witnesses, he said.

But Ramos could not explain his actions that night either. And it was those actions which led jurors to decide on death.

If Ramos simply had shot his victims after the robbery, without ordering them to kneel, pray and bend their heads, "it might have made it close in our decision," jury foreman Cindy Culpepper of Huntington Beach said. "But the way this crime was carried out, it was the cruelest kind of execution. We had no choice but to vote for death."

Now only one of the four Bird Court death reversals of Orange County cases remains. It is the case of John Galen Davenport, now 32, convicted of a rape and murder in Irvine. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction, but granted him a new penalty trial, now set for June.

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