Wednesday, April 18, 2007
BY SUSANNAH A. NESMITH
A florescent desk light and a 23-year-old photo of a shoe print may have finally done what ''unreliable science'' could not -- convict Joseph Ramirez of murder.
Ramirez has previously been convicted and sentenced to death three times for killing Mary Jane Quinn on Christmas Day 1983, but each time, the Florida Supreme Court has overturned his conviction.
In the three previous trials, prosecutors introduced a medical examiner who said a knife found in Ramirez's car was the one used to kill Quinn in order to steal her mailbag, which contained about $400. But the Supreme Court was skeptical of the evidence and twice reversed the convictions. After Ramirez's third trial in 2002, the court ruled the medical examiner's testimony about the knife was too ''novel'' to be admissible as evidence.
The fourth trial concluded Tuesday with the jury -- unaware of the controversy over the knife -- asking to see a photo of the killer's shoe print.
Within hours, the jury convicted Ramirez of first-degree murder.
Ramirez's attorney, Ed O'Donnell Jr., had argued the shoe prints were key evidence and would show his client was innocent, if only there were clear photos.
There were photographs, those taken by crime scene investigators 23 years ago. But the camera's flash malfunctioned and the shoe print that investigators said was clear on the tile entryway of the Federal Express office where Quinn was found dead was not clear in the photos.
During this month's trial, one investigator testified he remembered a pattern of circles in the shoe print.
''The shoe print of the murderer lay before their very eyes,'' O'Donnell told the jury, holding up Ramirez's white Converse high-top sneakers to show them that the pattern on the sole was of diamonds.
What O'Donnell hadn't counted on was the desk light.
Assistant State Attorney David I. Gilbert held the florescent light over the post-card sized photos of the gray carpet and showed it to each juror. ''He's been saying all through this trial that the sneaker pattern belongs to the killer,'' Gilbert told the jury. ``It's right there in evidence.''
He warned the jurors some of them might not be able to see the shoe print, but said some would.
Later, during deliberations, the jurors asked to see the photos again -- and the florescent light.
After a brief argument from O'Donnell, Circuit Judge Reemberto Diaz sent the lamp into the jury room with the blurry 23-year-old photos.
During this month's trial, Gilbert and co-counsel Flora Seff had the task of using 1983 technology to prove to a 2007 jury that Ramirez was Quinn's killer.
They had a single bloody fingerprint left on a door jamb near Quinn's body -- but none of the blood was saved, therefore DNA technology couldn't be used to tie Ramirez to the crime scene.
The prosecution was stuck with the '80s-era science of blood typing.
The fingerprint was Ramirez's and could have been Ramirez's blood type but pictures taken shortly after the crime show Ramirez didn't have a single cut on his body.
''His body is innocent of this crime,'' O'Donnell told the jury, insisting Ramirez, who worked as a janitor in the Federal Express office, could have left his fingerprint anytime before the murder.
O'Donnell had a tough time explaining some of his client's actions after the crime, however.
When police asked Ramirez for the shirt he was wearing the night of the killing, he gave them a shirt, but a Burdines receipt showed he bought it after the fact.
He also sent a letter from jail to the court in which he tried to explain the bloody fingerprint with bizarre stories about a prior injury and a used sanitary napkin.
Judge Diaz is set to sentence Ramirez at a later date. This time, Ramirez faces life in prison because the Florida Supreme Court has precluded the death penalty. By 1983 sentencing guidelines, Ramirez could be out in two years.
Seff, who has prosecuted Ramirez in all four of his trials, expressed relief after the verdict was read:
''It wasn't a sure thing that he'd get convicted this time,'' Seff said, noting a total of 49 jurors have found him guilty.
"I think he belongs in prison for the rest of his life.''
Miami Herald writer David Smiley contributed to this report.