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Stalker Case Juror Removed Over Death Row Comment

Times Staff Writer

The judge in the Night Stalker trial on Tuesday dismissed a black juror from the case after concluding that the man had indicated to others that he would not condemn defendant Richard Ramirez to die because there already is a disproportionate number of minorities on Death Row.

The accusation against the juror, Rudolph Wagner, was made last week by two women who were in the pool of prospective jurors.

Their accusation was buttressed on Tuesday by three other members of the jury, who testified under oath that Wagner had expressed his views in the jury deliberation room--in violation of a standing court order not to discuss any facet of the case.

Possibility of Mistrial

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The dismissal of Wagner, a vocational rehabilitation specialist at the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles, still left the possibility that a mistrial would be sought by Ramirez’s defense lawyer. But Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Phil Halpin, a co-prosecutor in the case, said a mistrial would not be necessary.

Wagner said after his dismissal that he stands by his denial that he had ever made any statements outside court concerning his views on the death penalty or the racial makeup of the nation’s death rows.

But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan ruled that he had determined “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Wagner indeed had made those statements.

One of Wagner’s accusers, Deborah A. Drake, was excused without explanation as an alternate juror on Thursday by the defense, which was exercising a routine peremptory challenge. It was after Drake’s dismissal that another woman, technically still a prospective alternate juror in the case, came forward to report Wagner’s remarks.

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Because of the controversy, Tynan has postponed the start of the trial from next Monday until a week later.

Both of the female witnesses are Anglo and have said they would like to have been jurors or alternates in the case, in which defendant Ramirez, a Latino drifter, is accused of murdering 13 Los Angeles County residents.

Wagner’s dismissal left Tynan, the prosecutors and defense attorney Daniel Hernandez with several alternatives in selecting a replacement for Wagner.

Options Available

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As Tynan noted on Tuesday, the court could reopen general jury selection or continue with the selection of alternates who are to sit through a trial expected to last up to two years. After 13 alternates are selected, one of them could then be picked at random as Wagner’s replacement.

That decision, however, will have to await the completion of an unusual procedure in which all 40 or so jurors and prospective alternates are being individually questioned about any knowledge they may have about Wagner’s comments regardings his disinclination to send an ethnic minority to Death Row.

It was during such questioning late Tuesday that three members of the jury, sworn in the week before, testified that while in the jury room they heard Wagner say something to the effect that there is a disproportionate number of minorities on Death Row.

None of the three jurors could recall his exact words. But each said Wagner had made that comment without apparently directing it to any specific individual in the room. Two of the jurors said they had been reading at the time. None of them discussed Wagner’s comment with anyone else.

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The questioning of the remaining prospective jurors was to continue this morning.

Corridor Remark

It was Drake and the other woman, whose name is not being disclosed because she is still technically a prospective juror, who said they had been strolling down the crowded Courthouse corridor during a court recess in early January when they overheard Wagner make his remarks to at least two other men.

Drake has also said she believes that the other men may be jurors or potential jurors in the case as well, since they also were wearing county-issued juror badges.

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In court on Tuesday, Hernandez argued against Wagner’s dismissal, saying Wagner had come across on the witness stand as “very honest” and “very straightforward,” whereas his accusers had been “consistently inconsistent.” At most, Hernandez said, Wagner had committed “an indiscretion.”

But Tynan disagreed, saying he had arrived at a finding, “frankly, after much agony,” that Wagner did tell others of his reluctance to impose the death penalty on a Latino.

Tynan also said he had concluded that Wagner had hidden that sentiment from the court when asked earlier about his views toward capital punishment.

Judge Sees No Choice

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The issue, the judge said, is central to the case. He described Wagner as a smart and well-educated man, but said Wagner’s remarks had left him no choice but to dismiss him.

Tynan called the controversy over Wagner’s remarks and his subsequent dismissal an “unusual, if not unique experience” in his more than 20 years in the legal profession.

Hernandez called the flap “a sad state of affairs.” He said he would delay a motion for a mistrial until all of the prospective jurors had been questioned individually about any comments by Wagner they may have overheard regarding Death Row and capital punishment.

Ramirez has been held in County Jail without bail since he was captured by civilians in East Los Angeles on Labor Day Weekend in 1985.

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