District Attorney Mike Ramos straightens his tie before a press conference for Operation Desert Guardian on Wednesday, October 18, 2017. Operation Desert Guardian, conducted in the High Desert by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, began on Friday, June 2, 2017. Throughout the Operation deputies seized multiple firearms, drugs, and made several arrests in the cities of Victorville, Adelanto, Apple Valley, and Hesperia. (Sarah Alvarado fo The Sun)
By Lara Bazelon |
Published: June 1, 2018 at 6:00 pm | Updated: June 2, 2018 at 9:56 pm
On June 5, voters in San Bernardino County will head to the polls and decide whether to re-elect District Attorney Michael Ramos to his fifth term or replace him with challenger Jason Anderson, a former prosecutor in Ramos’ office who specialized in putting away child sex offenders. Anderson has also practiced law as a criminal defense attorney.
It is a stark choice and an easy one, which makes your Friday editorial endorsing Ramos all the more difficult to fathom given the newspaper’s position as a standard bearer for truth. A prosecutor must be a minister of justice. In 1935, the United States Supreme Court made this duty explicit, famously stating that the prosecution’s ultimate goal “is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.” It is surprising that the editorial board would overlook this fundamental obligation in giving Ramos its stamp of approval.
Ramos is not a minister of justice. His cultivation of a tough-on-crime persona has led to a win-at-all-costs mentality. Despite his empty campaign rhetoric, Ramos is incapable of admitting, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that some of these suspects are actually innocent, and some of his cases are misguided vendettas.
For 13 years, Ramos fought to preserve the 1993 conviction of William Richards for killing his wife, Pamela. Ramos opposed DNA testing, forcing attorneys with the California Innocence Project to engage in a years-long court battle. In 2008, the prosecution’s key expert recanted his testimony, stating of Richards, “I have essentially ruled him out.” Ramos fought on. In 2010, a trial judge found that “the entire prosecution case has been undermined” based on evidence that “points unerringly to innocence.” Ramos appealed.
In 2016, after the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Richards’ conviction had to be tossed because it was based on false evidence, Ramos determined that the appropriate response was to prosecute Richards on the same murder charge for a fifth time. He dropped the case eight days after Richards’ attorneys filed a motion to dismiss for vindictive prosecution. At that point, Richards had served more than 25 years in prison.
Now Ramos is opposing DNA testing that could exonerate death row prisoner Kevin Cooper, who will be one the of first in line for execution once the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is cleared to use its revamped lethal injection protocol. In 2016, Cooper’s attorneys submitted a petition to Gov. Jerry Brown with a simple request: That the state provide the crime scene evidence in its possession for testing using new methods and without the contamination and tampering alleged to have occurred in 2002.
That petition lay dormant until a searing reexamination of Cooper’s case by Pulitzer-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof was published in The New York Times on May 17. Kristof noted the racism that pervaded Cooper’s trial as a black man accused of murdering four white victims and argued that the San Bernardino Police Department framed Cooper while ignoring compelling evidence pointing to a different — Caucasian — suspect.
Kristof wrote, “I’ve never come across a case in America as outrageous as Kevin Cooper’s.” In response, many implored the governor to act, including both of California’s senators, Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris.
Ramos responded by filing a 94-page opposition. In a press release, he publicly denounced what he called “the repeated and false claims from Cooper and his propaganda machine.”
Then there is the infamous Colonies case, a nine-year vendetta by Ramos to seek public corruption convictions against three former San Bernardino County officials and a real estate developer. The result was three acquittals and a hung jury in what his opponent, Anderson, calls a “wrongful political prosecution.” The four men, all of whom insist they are innocent, have sued or filed claims against the county for $250 million. Ramos has also lost the confidence of many in his own office, who believe he is more interested in scoring political points and seeking higher office than doing his job. The editorial board has dubbed the case “a boondoggle.”
San Bernardino County is the 12th most populous county in the United States. Whoever wins this race will have jurisdiction over more than 2 million people, wielding the awesome power that comes with deciding who to charge and what penalty to seek. If Ramos prevails, he will do everything he can to ensure that Cooper’s penalty is death, which risks the ultimate horror: the state killing of an innocent person.
With the power to prosecute comes the responsibility to carry out what the Supreme Court has characterized as the “two-fold aim” of convicting the guilty and sparing the innocent, even when it means conceding a cascade of errors and dropping the case.
Ramos spares no one, as the paper has reported, but its editorial board now refuses to acknowledge. Indeed, Ramos’ record of injustice has created new victims: The wrongfully accused, the wrongfully convicted and the survivors of crime and their families who are revictimized when the real perpetrator goes free. They deserve the truth, they deserve a fair process, and when a mistake has been made, they deserve a remedy. As do all of the residents of San Bernardino County. Ramos has demonstrated that he is not capable of delivering on the mandate to seek and administer justice. He needs to go.
Lara Bazelon is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. Her book “Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction,” will be published in October.