Trial and Error
After nearly nine hours of deliberations over the course of two days, a jury on Monday found 36-year-old Austin Police Department officer Samuel Ramirez guilty of official oppression, in a case that has been plodding through the district court system for more than two years. Ramirez was convicted of forcing a Southeast Austin woman to perform oral sex on him after he responded to a burglar alarm call at her friend's home in March 1999. Ramirez never claimed he didn't have sex with the woman, who saved some of his semen in a plastic bag as evidence of the encounter, but he has maintained all along that the sex was consensual. When the matter was taken to the grand jury in May 1999, the jury declined to indict Ramirez for felony sexual assault, instead choosing the lesser charge of official oppression, a class A misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
During the four-day trial, Ramirez's attorney Steve Edwards painted the woman, who has asked that her identity remain confidential, as an unreliable witness, noting that her past criminal record includes arrests for burglary and drug dealing. Edwards even suggested the reason the victim was at her friend's house on March 13, 1999, was to commit a burglary. On the witness stand, the 32-year-old woman denied this claim and said she was terrified of Ramirez, who was armed and in uniform during the incident. "I couldn't believe he was doing this," she testified. "I was wondering: Was he going to shoot me?"
Assistant District Attorney Judy Shipway told reporters she was pleased with the verdict, which she said sent a clear message that the citizens of Austin won't tolerate such conduct by officers. On Monday, the APD released an official statement condemning Ramirez's actions. Any employee that "commits as serious an offense as official oppression does not deserve the right to wear the uniform of the Austin Police Department," the statement read in part.
Still, it appears the case is far from over. Firecracker testimony by APD Internal Affairs Detective Richard Vaughn late Friday had Edwards moving for a mistrial and, at the very least, has laid the groundwork for a possible appeal. In his statement -- the last testimony of the trial -- Vaughn told jurors there was a chance that Ramirez would be allowed back on the force, from which he has been suspended indefinitely since May 1999. During cross-examination, Edwards asked Vaughn whether "a man who has admitted to having consensual sex while on duty could end up back on the street."
"In our opinion," Vaughn replied, "it was not consensual."
That was enough to wake up courtroom observers, many of whom were starting to droop in the late-afternoon heat. As an Internal Affairs officer, Vaughn had access to information that would not be available to criminal prosecutors; some of the information, if revealed in a criminal proceeding, could potentially violate Ramirez's constitutional rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and 14th amendments. Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield said that although Ramirez clearly had his day in court, "we do have concerns any time someone from Internal Affairs testifies in the trial of an APD officer because of the nature of the information that Internal Affairs has," he said. "If that [testimony] somehow could've possible influenced that jury, it is of great concern."
After Vaughn's testimony, Edwards moved for a mistrial before 299th District Court Judge Jon Wisser. The motion was denied, and Wisser instructed the jury to ignore Vaughn's statement. Edwards protested that that was like "throwing a skunk into the jury box and asking them to ignore the smell." Wisser will consider a further motion for mistrial, and will rule on it when sentencing begins May 1. APD spokeswoman Sally Muir said the department had no comment on Vaughn's statement.
Meanwhile, outside the courthouse Monday, the woman who brought the case forward said she was pleased with the outcome, but still nervous. She said questions by lawyers in the trial were difficult to answer, but that "sometimes you've just got to sit there and take what you have to take. There were all these people that said I was bad and all, but the truth came through, and all these people came forward to support me." Indeed, Austin's activist community has kept the Ramirez case visible over the past two years by holding regular protests outside the courthouse. "We think he's getting off really lightly," said Theresa Gorman from Cop Watch, an activist group that monitors APD activities. "And this isn't just one time or one case. This is a whole system that doesn't take rape seriously. We just hope [Ramirez] can get some counseling to help take care of his problems."