On Monday, I stood with Mr. Ramirez in a largely empty San Jose courtroom and accepted the dismissal of the charges against him. The judge ordered him released. 543 days in jail for a crime we believe he didn't commit. But this wasn't a malicious or wrongful prosecution. The universe had conspired against him, had prompted witnesses to misidentify him. 543 days too many.On September 12, 2014, the San Jose Police Department arrested Mr. Ramirez. The Santa Clara County District Attorney charged him with a gang related attempted murder for a viscous shooting that left the victim permanently disabled in a wheelchair. Eyewitnesses had identified Mr. Ramirez as the culprit in photo lineups. Those identifications coupled with Mr. Ramirez's voluminous gang and gun history made his arrest and prosecution understandable; likely an open and shut case that would end with Mr. Ramirez serving a life sentence and dying in prison. One hiccup: Mr. Ramirez was innocent.
My colleague Jaime and then I received Mr. Ramirez's case. We met him. We heard his declarations of innocence. We spent the next several months attempting to unravel the prosecution's narrative, call into question the eyewitness identifications and develop Mr. Ramirez's alibi.
Our office engaged an eyewitness ID expert who raised doubts about the veracity of the eyewitnesses' identifications of Mr. Ramirez. Our investigator secured our client's cell phone records. We had them mapped by a cell phone tower expert to establish that Mr. Ramirez was miles away from the crime scene on the tragic night of the shooting. We further developed our client's alibi through witness statements of family and friends who saw him that evening. A jailhouse informant had come forward with claims that a man, known only by a nickname, had been housed with him at the county jail and admitted that it was he, not Mr. Ramirez, who was the shooter. My intern Karissa combed jail records and I scoured social media. We identified the potential alternate suspect.
After months of work up that had corroborated Mr. Ramirez's claims, my supervisor Mark and I met with the powers that be at the DA's office. We sat together in a DA supervisor's office and I outlined these developments, urging the team of prosecutors to see the glaring reasonable doubts and to dismiss the case. They kindly received our presentation but took it under submission; they'd let us know their decision after doing their own follow up investigation.
All the while, Mr. Ramirez patiently waited in the county jail. Caged. Shackled. Belittled. Removed. His wife, pregnant at the time of his arrest, gave birth to his first and only child, a boy, in November of 2014. His only contact with his new progeny existed through county jail glass on sporadic family visits. His only other connection with the outside world made through overpriced collect calls and snail mail. Still, Mr. Ramirez remained forbearing and kind. He would rarely call asking for updates. We'd meet at the jail periodically to touch base and trade information. He didn't complain, didn't yell. He asked questions but didn't prod. He expressed little emotion, perhaps a defense mechanism to deal with the anguish inside. He proclaimed trust in God and in me that justice would be served. I didn't join in his optimism but nevertheless attempted to affirm him with my words and efforts.
Months passed. The DA repeatedly told us they were investigating but not ready to dismiss. Mr. Ramirez and I were paralyzed; not willing to push the envelope and rush to trial for fear of a conviction despite the reasonable doubts we had developed. One continuance after another. 4 weeks here, 6 weeks there. Mr. Ramirez waited. Everyday, he waited in his county jail clothes in a cell filled with ambiguity and uncertainty, his life, his family, his son in the balance. Each day another that his son was without his father. Each day another that his wife struggled to survive without her husband. No end in sight.
Last Friday, a weekend away from Mr. Ramirez's most recent trial date, I sat in a courtroom gallery waiting for a different case to be called. Mr. Ramirez's case had become an afterthought; I assumed his matter would be continued again come Monday. But this Friday morning was a fateful one. A text from my supervisor appeared on my phone: “DA dismissing Ramirez”. Tears welled behind my eyes. It was actually happening.
I rushed to the jail to share the news with Mr. Ramirez. A correctional officer escorted him into the holding cell and shackled him to his chair. I waited for the guard to leave and then looked Mr. Ramirez in the eye and told him, “They're dismissing your case.”
He sat silent, perhaps consumed by shock. Tears filled our eyes. His first words were of his son. He couldn't wait to be a father to his boy. In those moments, I thought of my own two sons. I couldn't imagine not being able to hold my boys, not being able to nap with them, smother them with kisses, take them on my shoulders to the park. I thought of the torture for Mr. Ramirez seeing his son through the glass, unable to reach out and touch his beloved. I shared my thoughts with Mr. Ramirez. He could now take his son to school, play catch with him, put him to sleep. I told him he could walk with his son to the park after a long day like I love to do with my boys. As our eyes welled, I stood and leaned to hug Mr. Ramirez as he remained confined to his chair. One day soon, we could hug unrestrained.
I went back to the office and called Mr. Ramirez's wife. Her tears poured through the phone. She'd be getting her husband back. Her son would have his father.
On Monday, I stood with Mr. Ramirez in a largely empty San Jose courtroom and accepted the dismissal of the charges against him. The judge ordered him released. 543 days in jail for a crime we believe he didn't commit. But this wasn't a malicious or wrongful prosecution. The universe had conspired against him, had prompted witnesses to misidentify him. 543 days too many.
But this tale isn't a tragedy; It's a triumph. A saga marked by Mr. Ramirez's patience and grace, by our office's diligence and perseverance, and by the DA's integrity and conscientiousness. The same universe aligned in Mr. Ramirez's favor, had prompted the DA to dismiss. 543 days late, but right on time for Mr. Ramirez. No more glass between him and his son.