A man living in the U.S. illegally pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges he sexually assaulted, tortured and killed a Santa Barbara County woman last month in a case that became a flashpoint in the national debate on immigration policy.
Police say Victor Aureliano Martinez Ramirez, 29, and another man broke into the home of 64-year-old Marilyn Pharis in Santa Maria on July 24 and attacked her with a hammer and sexually assaulted her. Pharis, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base, died Aug. 1 from her wounds.
Ramirez, who also goes by the name Victor Martinez, shuffled into a Santa Maria court Thursday, wearing a gray shirt, tie and shackles. No bail was set.
A second man, 20-year-old Jose Fernando Villagomez, has been charged in connection with Pharis' death, including counts of first-degree murder and carrying out "rape by instrument." Arraingment for Villagomez, a U.S. citizen, was delayed until next month.
Deputy Public Defender Lori Pedego said the national spotlight on the case hurts Martinez's chance at a fair trial.
"I don't know with the national media attention if he can get a fair trial anywhere in this country at this point," she said. "We think it is inappropriate for people to use her death to catapult their own political agenda or opinions in the national spotlight."
At a news conference last week, Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin said "there's a blood trail leading to the bedroom of Marilyn Pharis" from Sacramento and Washington.
"This is not just in Santa Maria. This is all over the state of California and all over the United States," Martin told KEYT Channel 3.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked Santa Barbara custody officials to put a detention hold on Ramirez last year after he was charged with felony assault with intent to commit sexual assault. The detainer was meant to ensure Ramirez would be transferred into federal custody before his release.
But after reviewing the evidence, prosecutors decided to charge him with a misdemeanor. Santa Barbara custody officials concluded that keeping Ramirez would violate the state's Trust Act, which allows local law enforcement to hold inmates for immigration authorities only if they have been charged with a serious crime.
On July 17, just days before the fatal attack, Ramirez was booked into Santa Barbara County Jail on drug and weapons charges, according to the sheriff's office. He was ordered released July 20 after pleading no contest to the weapons charge.
Thursday's hearing drew about two dozen protesters, including several members from the Central Coast Tea Party, who demanded tougher immigration policies. They waved American flags outside the court and signs reading, "Defund sanctuary cities" and "Deport criminal aliens."
Many drew comparisons to the fatal shooting last month of Kathryn Steinle, 32, in San Francisco. Police say Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez fatally shot Steinle on Pier 14 while she was walking with her father. The Mexican national had previously been deported five times and had seven felony convictions.
Lopez-Sanchez admitted in an interview with KGO-TV to accidentally firing a gun he said he found wrapped in a T-shirt. He has pleaded not guilty.
The shooting highlighted the strained relationship between immigration authorities and local law enforcement in many parts of the country. San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policy limits local law enforcement's cooperation with U.S. immigration officials.
"I don't understand why illegals have all these rights," said Inice Edwards, 78, of Santa Maria during Thursday's protest. "He should never have had a chance to do what he did."
The case and the protest also brought immigrant advocates like Arnulfo Romero, 55, a furniture store owner who has lived in Santa Maria since 1969 when he came to the U.S. as a legal resident from Zacatecas, Mexico.
He agreed with tea party protesters that Martinez should have been deported. But he said the killing, along with San Francisco case, was being used by politicians and pundits to indict all Latino immigrants in the U.S.
"When white people kill each other they say it's because of mental issues," he said, sitting on a bench outside court. "Then they use these cases to go against any and all Latinos here."
Other counter protesters carried signs that read "don't use tragedy to spread hate."
Numerous national studies have shown there is no link between immigrants and violent crime.
A 2014 study by Jörg Spenkuch, a professor of economics at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, compared 20 years of national FBI crime statistics to records listing the percentage of immigrants in every county in the continental U.S.
"There's essentially no correlation between immigrants and violent crime," he wrote.
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