Questionable forensic testimony has kept Joseph Ramirez behind bars in Florida for 25 years. Will a fifth trial finally set him free?
When the National Academy of Sciences issued a report earlier this year saying that courtroom identifications made by forensic scientists based on evidence such as bite marks, ballistics and other tool marks are frequently overstated and without scientific basis, the academy could well have pointed to the 25-year-long prosecution of Joseph Ramirez in Florida to illustrate its point.
Dade County prosecutors have repeatedly won convictions against Ramirez, for the Christmas Eve 1983 robbery and murder of Mary Jane Quinn, a Federal Express courier who was stabbed to death. The most recent–and fourth–conviction came in 2007, but prosecutorial persistence once again was undermined by doubts about the quality of the forensic evidence against him.
Lawyers for Ramirez, who worked as a cleaner in the company's northwest Dade offices have won a motion for an evidentiary hearing this fall (no date has been set) challenging the state's forensic evidence as unsound.
Earlier attempts to nail Ramirez on the basis of scientific “evidence” -matching stab wounds found on the victim to a knife recovered from his girlfriend's car–had already failed.
This time, the controversial evidence hinged on an alleged shoeprint.
At Ramirez's fourth trial in 2007, prosecutors introduced a photograph of carpeting from the crime scene and elicited testimony from a detective that a mark on the carpet was the “same” as the defendant's shoeprint, according to the defense motion for a hearing.
The defense motion argues that Ramirez's original trial lawyer provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the shoeprint testimony and by failing to object to a prosecutor's closing argument that relied upon that testimony. Prosecutors, not surprisingly, contended that the shoeprint evidence was proper.
In the defense motion that prompted the order for an evidentiary hearing, William Bodziak, a former FBI agent and nationally recognized in state and federal courts as an expert on shoeprint evidence, declared that the mark in a photograph of the carpet is not even identifiable as a shoeprint, but only as “faint reddened areas, possibly including some linear areas or lines.”
Moreover, Bodziak said in an affidavit that no one “qualified to conduct a proper forensic examination of footwear impressions would have testified that it was the defendant's shoeprint.” (Click here to download Bodziak’s deposition)
That the evidence was significant to the jury was reflected in a post-verdict article in the Miami Herald entitled, “Shoe Print Convicts Killer.”
But if past experience is any guide, the newest forensic “evidence” should have rung alarm bells.
Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death in three separate trials after prosecutors presented forensic testimony that purported to prove that the knife recovered from the car of his girlfriend was the murder weapon. The forensic analysts claimed it was the only knife -to the exclusion of all other knives ever made – that could have left the stab wounds found on the victim's body.
And three times the Florida Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered new trials because the testimony was improper and not scientific.
Ramirez a suspect in Christmas Eve murder
Almost immediately after Quinn's body was discovered on Dec. 25, 1983, Federal Express officials offered a $25,000 reward for information about the attack–believed at the time to be the first attack of its kind in the then-10-year-old company's history. The attack came after 11 p.m. the previous evening, as Quinn, 27, was preparing to deliver packages and the day's receipts of $430 to the company office at the Ft. Lauderdale airport.
Ramirez, who has consistently denied committing the crime, came under suspicion a few days later. Then 25, he had cleaned the offices the afternoon of the murder and police had found his fingerprint on a doorjamb. The fingerprint, they theorized, contained a mixture of Ramirez's and Quinn's blood types.
A defense expert, however, said that given the miniscule amount of blood present, it was more likely that only Ramirez's blood was present. The expert added that the blood was probably left prior to the murder since he had no cuts on his hands when police questioned him afterwards.
Nevertheless, the forensic evidence seemed to justify the initial conclusions of police that they had nabbed the right man. According to investigating officers, Ramirez' conduct under questioning raised serious doubts. Asked to produce a sweater that he was wearing the day he cleaned the offices, he said he had taken it to a cleaners. When that was exposed as a lie, Ramirez produced a sweater for authorities, but police determined he had purchased that sweater after the murder.
Ultimately, Ramirez said that after cleaning the office, he spent the evening with a friend drinking and smoking marijuana and came home after midnight. His girlfriend said that she did not hear him come home, but saw him asleep before 6 a.m.
Police seized Ramirez's watch, which appeared to have traces of human blood on it. The knife in his girlfriend's car–the car Ramirez drove on Christmas Eve to get to work at the Federal Express office–tested positive for blood, but tests to determine its type have been unable to establish if it was human blood.
No blood was found on any of Ramirez's clothing or either pair of his Converse Chuck Taylor tennis shoes–the only shoes he owned.
Defense attorneys for Ramirez noted that there was blood on the computer in the office and records showed the computer was used to contact Federal Express headquarters in Memphis the night Quinn was killed–once at 1 a.m. to report that she had not yet arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale airport and again at 1:30 a.m., to report that she had arrived safely at the airport, even though she hadn't. Ramirez had no access to and did not know how to use the computers there, according to the evidence. The hard drives were not seized and there was no evidence introduced to try to establish who might have used the computer.
The manager of the Federal Express office, Marcus Gaines, gave a sworn statement to police shortly after the crime that there was “nothing unusual about his conversation with Ramirez” that afternoon when Ramirez came to clean the offices. But at trial, Gaines testified that Ramirez complained about his salary, asked how much money came through the office and what key was needed to open the adjacent warehouse where Quinn's truck was parked, according to the defense post-trial motion.
The defense also noted that Gaines “had reason to deflect police attention” because he was the last known employee at the office before Quinn arrived and said he had placed the missing mailbag with the day's receipts in her truck and put her truck keys (which were never found) in the ignition. Police did not check Gaines' alibi–that he had spent the night of the murder several hours away in Tampa–nor did they take his hair, blood or fingerprints or search his car or home, according to the defense motion.
Novel knife identification theory ridiculed on appeal
At his first trial, the state's lead witness was Robert Hart, a criminalist at the Metro-Dade Police Department, who said he had compared the knife to striations found on a wound left in the victim's rib cartilage.
He testified to a “scientific certainty” that if there were two million identical knives produced, he was able to conclude that the one-half-inch mark on the cartilage was made by Ramirez's knife to the exclusion of all others–the first time in Florida court history that such evidence was allowed.
After Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial, declaring Hart's testimony was “self-serving” and scientifically unsound.
When the case came back for a second trial, Hart testified at a pre-trial hearing to the reliability of his identification theory and presented an article he had written about it. After Ramirez was barred from presenting any opposing evidence, the judge ruled Hart's testimony admissible, and Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death once more.
The case was reversed a second time, with the Florida Supreme Court ruling that Ramirez had been denied a fair hearing on the admissibility of the knife evidence. So another hearing was held to determine the legitimacy of the evidence under the Frye v. United States decision–a 1923 court case that requires testing be generally accepted within the scientific community. After the state presented six experts supporting Hart and the defense presented an expert debunking Hart, the judge allowed Hart to testify a third time.
Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death a third time. And again, the Florida Supreme Court reversed, saying that Hart's identification procedure “cannot be said to carry the imprimatur of science.”
Although the court noted that prosecution experts testified that the underlying principle employed by Hart was generally accepted in the field, it concluded “that this testimony standing alone is insufficient to establish admissibility under Frye in light of the fact that Hart's testing procedure posses none of the hallmarks of acceptability that apply in the relevant scientific community to this type of evidence.”
The court also noted that Hart's methodology “and particularly his claim of infallibility” had never been formally tested or verified and that the record failed to show that it had ever been subjected to meaningful peer review.
Calling it “a classic example of the kind of novel 'scientific' evidence that Frye was intended to banish–i.e., a “subjective, untested, unverifiable identification procedure that purports to be infallible,” the court said Ramirez could no longer be sentenced to death if tried a fourth time, and harshly criticized Hart's method.
“The criminal justice system utterly failed”
The shoeprint evidence has raised similar doubts. After reviewing the documents filed in the case, Peter Neufeld, a forensics expert and co-founder with Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, concluded in an interview for this article, “The detective’s assertion that a crime scene photograph revealing a faint reddened area matched the tread on Ramirez’ sneakers is junk science layered on junk science. A mere detective, without proffering appropriate qualifications and without any scientific basis for his conclusions offers damning — albeit false — evidence against the defendant.”
Neufeld added, “The criminal justice system utterly failed: the prosecutor unfairly exploited the ridiculous evidence in his closing argument, the defense never objected, and the court apparently relied on it. That is precisely why the National Academy of Sciences determined that the reforms to fix forensic science need to be implemented upstream of the courts. If federal oversight were in place, this evidence would not have seen the light of day. But if you wait until it gets to court, you can sit back and watch the train wreck in slow motion.”
But the NAS report, issued in February, seemed to justify the doubts about the knife evidence. Discussing this type of impression analysis, it noted, “Because not enough is known about the variabilities among individual tools and guns, we are not able to specify how many points of similarity are necessary for a given level of confidence in the result. Sufficient studies have not been done to understand the reliability and repeatability of the methods.”
Nevertheless, prosecutors were determined to press science into their case once again. At the fourth trial, prosecutors Flora Seff and David Gilbert presented detective William Saladrigas as a witness. Saladrigas told the court he had been told that a photograph was taken of a shoeprint in the carpet, but said he had never seen it. The detective added, according to the defense motion for a new hearing, that he believed such a photo did not exist.
But when Saladrigas was later recalled to the stand, he viewed a four- by-six inch photograph of carpeting and then testified, according to the motion, that he had seen the photograph before and that it reflected “some sort of pattern on the carpeting.” Under redirect examination, Saladrigas testified that the “pattern” depicted in the photograph of the carpet was the “same” as the pattern on the soles of Mr. Ramirez's sneakers.
Arguing for the hearing on the shoeprint testimony, Assistant Public Defenders Valerie Jonas and Edith Georgi declared in their motion, “Detective Saladrigas' shoeprint comparison was inadmissible as either lay or expert testimony. There was no foundation for his testimony,” they maintained. “He identified no peculiarities, [nor any] distinctive marks of wear, or even measurements to distinguish the defendant's Converse sneaker from all the other Converse sneakers in the world; he provided no qualifications or experience to enable him to identify any such peculiarities, nor any verifiable basis for determining a match between the mark in the carpet and the defendant's Converse sneaker.”
The damage was compounded, the attorneys contended, when prosecutor Gilbert, in his closing argument, pulled out a fluorescent lamp and told the jurors that if they examined the photograph under the lamp, they would see “something amazing:” the pattern of Ramirez's shoes.
During deliberations, jurors asked for some of the evidence, including the fluorescent light and the photograph of the carpet. In opposing the motion for a post-trial hearing, prosecutor Gilbert and co-prosecutor Penny Brill contended the evidence against Ramirez was substantial and that the failure of Ramirez's trial lawyer to object to Saladrigas's testimony was not ineffective work and was of “minimal significance.
However, at Ramirez's sentencing hearing, Seff–who is now a Dade County judge–characterized the carpet photograph as “most compelling.”
Ramirez was sentenced to life in prison in the Florida Department of Corrections. He can no longer be sentenced to death. If the motion is successful, Ramirez would receive a fifth trial.
Lawyers for Ramirez and the prosecution declined comment because the case is pending in court.
Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author who left the Chicago Tribune in 2008. He was a visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan Law School in 2009 and in the fall will begin work at the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law.