Stalker Defense Strives to Create Doubt on Jury

Times Staff Writer

Defense lawyers in the Night Stalker trial rested their case Monday, clinging to the hope that they have persuaded jurors that the wrong man is being prosecuted for the serial murders.

"I sure hope so," Ray G. Clark, a lawyer for defendant Richard Ramirez, said when asked if he believed that the defense effort has created a reasonable doubt in the Los Angeles Superior Court jury's mind.

Toward that end, Clark and co-counsel Daniel V. Hernandez since May 9 have elicited much testimony regarding unidentified blood, hairs and fingerprints found at some of the 15 scenes of the so-called Night Stalker crimes that may not have belonged to either Ramirez or his alleged victims.

Among those who testified on Ramirez's behalf was his father, Julian Ramirez-Tapia, who said his son was in El Paso, Tex., visiting relatives at the time of two of the alleged attacks.

The father's surprise testimony contradicted that of a Burbank woman, who identified Ramirez in court as the man who robbed and raped her May 30, 1985--a day that the suspect, according to the senior Ramirez, was in Texas. The Burbank woman also identified as hers pieces of jewelry taken in the predawn attack that police later recovered at the El Paso home of Ramirez's sister.

Another defense witness, Sandra Hotchkiss, a convicted burglar, told the jury that she had committed up to 25 residential burglaries in and around Los Angeles with Ramirez and found him to be amateurish and nonviolent.

The defense lawyers have also elicited testimony intended to persuade the panel of seven women and five men that eyewitness identifications of Ramirez had been made under less-than-ideal circumstances--including the intensive news media coverage immediately after the suspect's arrest--thus allowing witnesses to focus on Ramirez at the police lineup and subsequently in court.

For example, one defense witness, Elizabeth F. Loftus, a University of Washington psychologist who studies memory and eyewitness identifications, testified that academic research shows that stress or extreme fright can often cause impairments or mistakes in eyewitness recall.

Loftus also said cross-racial identifications are often more error-prone than in cases where both parties belong to the same race. (Of the eight prosecution witnesses who have placed Ramirez at a Night Stalker scene, three are Latinos, as is the suspect. The others are either Asian or Anglo.)

Loftus conceded under cross-examination that eyewitness identifications are typically more accurate if a victim had more than a fleeting encounter with an attacker, as did several of the survivors of alleged Night Stalker attacks.

In all, Ramirez, 29, faces 13 murder charges and 30 other felony counts--including attempted murder, burglary and assorted sexual assaults--all stemming from a series of brutal night-time attacks throughout Los Angeles County, mostly in the spring and summer of 1985.

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Attys. Phil Halpin and Alan Yochelson said they plan to take about three court days in calling prosecution witnesses during the rebuttal phase, beginning this morning.

The opposing lawyers are then expected to spend most, if not all, of next week meeting with Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan to hash out the wording of jury instructions. That will be a crucial phase because, according to Halpin, more than in any other phase of a criminal trial, unsatisfactory jury instructions are a major reason for appellate court reversals.

Also on the agenda is a long-scheduled vacation for the first full week of July. It thus appears that it will be July 10, at the earliest, before closing arguments are made and the case goes to the jury.

During the trial, which began Jan. 30, Halpin and Yochelson called 137 witnesses. They sought to tie Ramirez to the Night Stalker crimes by presenting eyewitness identifications, fingerprints, shoe prints, firearms evidence and the defendant's own incriminating statements.

"I think we've presented a case that is clear and straightforward," Halpin said. "I'm satisfied."

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