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State v. Ramos

Court of Appeals of Utah

August 23, 2018

State of Utah, Appellee,
Harlin Argelio Ramos, Appellant.

          Third District Court, Salt Lake Department The Honorable James T. Blanch No. 141904935

          Debra M. Nelson, Attorney for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and Christopher D. Ballard, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge David N. Mortensen authored this Opinion, in which Judges Jill M. Pohlman and Diana Hagen concurred.



         ¶1 "Please don't kill me. I have kids." Victim's plea was in vain, as Defendant Harlin Argelio Ramos stabbed him eight times, including a fatal thrust to the heart. After fleeing the scene, police located and arrested Ramos. In his interview, Ramos alleged that Victim had been the aggressor and that he had only acted in self-defense. The State charged Ramos with murder. At trial, the judge instructed the jury on both perfect and imperfect self-defense, and on the lesser-included offense of imperfect-self-defense manslaughter. One of those instructions was flawed, but the error was not prejudicial. The jury convicted Ramos as charged, and he timely appeals. We affirm.


         The Murder

         ¶2 Shortly after 1:00 a.m. on a mid-April morning, Victim and Friend had just finished watching a late movie at a movie theater. Because they had driven separately, Victim walked Friend to her car and she drove him back to his own. Before parting ways, the two talked in the car. While they conversed, Friend noticed two men-Ramos and his accomplice (Accomplice)-walk in front of her car and look at her in a way that "made [her] very uncomfortable." The men's behavior alarmed her so much that she removed her Taser from the glove compartment and rested it on the center console. Victim, however, seemed unconcerned about the men and continued their conversation.

         ¶3 Just as Victim was about to exit the vehicle, Ramos suddenly opened the passenger door and thrust his "whole arm" inside. Friend thought Ramos was reaching for her keys in an attempt to rob her. Victim pushed Ramos away and the two struggled outside of the car. Meanwhile, Friend closed her passenger door and went to call 911, but accidentally dropped her phone on the car floor. She then locked her car doors, honked her horn, screamed for help, and tried to find her phone.

         ¶4 When Friend looked back up, Victim and Ramos were no longer within eyesight, so she opened her door and stepped out of her car to find them. She heard Victim screaming "Please don't kill me. I have kids. Please don't kill me." Friend then grabbed her Taser and ran around to the front of her car. She found Victim on the ground with Ramos straddling Victim's lower abdomen and upper legs. She thought that Ramos was punching Victim, so she approached Ramos from behind and applied her Taser to the back of his pant leg, but it had no effect.

         ¶5 Realizing that the Taser needed to contact skin, Friend pulled down the collar of Ramos's jacket and applied the Taser to the back of his neck. Ramos tried to fight her off, and she ran back to her car, locked her car doors, began honking her horn and screaming for help. Having located her phone, she then dialed 911. Ramos and Accomplice then fled the scene on foot and were soon thereafter picked up by a taxi driver.[1] As Friend waited for someone to answer her 911 call, she saw Victim stagger in front of her car and fall near her door. Friend opened her door and heard Victim say, "I'm dying. Please help me."

         ¶6 As the 911 operator answered, an off-duty paramedic (Paramedic) responded to Friend's cries for help. Paramedic testified that, as he approached, he saw Ramos "cross in front of him and look directly at him." Paramedic rolled Victim onto his back to triage and treat his injuries, and soon thereafter he started CPR.

         ¶7 Meanwhile, Witness, whose apartment overlooks the crime scene, was watching television at home when he heard a woman screaming for help. From his vantage point, Witness saw two men assaulting another man and pinning him to the ground. Thinking that a robbery was in progress, Witness went to help, but by the time he arrived, Paramedic had already begun treatment. Police and on-duty paramedics soon arrived and took over, but Victim had already passed away.

         ¶8 Victim suffered nine sharp-force injuries: three to his chest, two to his upper back, two to his abdomen, one to his armpit, and one to the back of his right hand that was consistent with a defensive injury. All wounds were likely inflicted by a single-edged knife. The blade had entered Victim's chest and penetrated completely through his heart, "fully perforat[ing]" his "right ventricle." This was "a lethal injury" that stopped Victim's heart "within minutes." Victim's left lung was punctured twice, once from the front and once from the back, which hastened his death.

         The Arrest

         ¶9 Before police arrived, Ramos and Accomplice[2] fled the scene as Victim bled out. On arrival, police found two backpacks on site, one of which contained a cell phone receipt with Ramos's name on it, as well as his identification card. Police eventually located Ramos at a motel and arrested him. In the motel room, police found a t-shirt, a black jacket, and black athletic pants-all bloodstained-in the trash can in Ramos's room. DNA testing revealed Victim's blood on the t-shirt, jacket, and pants. Additionally, Ramos's fingerprint was on the front passenger door of Friend's car.

         ¶10 Ramos was given his Miranda warnings[3] and agreed to be interviewed by police. He informed police that he did not speak English, so the interview was conducted in Spanish. His interview resulted in several conflicting accounts. Initially, Ramos said that he and Accomplice had planned to meet a "taxi" from "someone who had a white sedan" and had mistaken Friend's car for the taxi. He further alleged that as he approached the door, Victim had jumped out and started hitting him in the head, grabbed his throat, and lifted him completely off of the ground. Ramos stated that as Victim hit him, Ramos said "'sorry, sorry,' and 'no problem, '" in English, but Victim continued to choke Ramos until he "became desperate" because he was "being asphyxiated." Ramos said he exclaimed, "Help me, help me, he is going to kill me," and then pulled out his knife and stabbed Victim.

         ¶11 When a detective told Ramos to "tell the truth," Ramos responded by claiming he was "confused" and maintained that he was attacked by Victim. But he then stated that he believed that Victim was somehow associated with a violent street gang and feared that they had come to harm him.

         ¶12 When the detective again asked Ramos to tell the truth, Ramos gave yet another version of the events, claiming that he had approached the vehicle because "he was selling drugs and he thought the people in the car wanted some." He continued to state that Victim had exited the car, began hitting and choking him, and because Ramos had drugs in his mouth that night, he spit them out when he was choked. But police did not recover any drugs at the murder scene or in Ramos's backpack or motel room. Ramos also told police initially that he dropped the knife as he fled the scene, but later said that he "may have thrown it away" with his clothing. Despite a thorough search, police did not find a knife in the area.

         The Taxi Driver

         ¶13 Three days after the murder, the police interviewed Taxi Driver. He also testified at trial, but his two accounts differ significantly. During his police interview, Taxi Driver told police that Ramos called him "around 1:00 a.m., 1:30 a.m., or 1:40 a.m." But when police asked to see Taxi Driver's phone log, he said that he had deleted it. A review of Ramos's phone records showed no outgoing calls to Taxi Driver during the 1:00 a.m. hour. Instead, Ramos's log showed only that Taxi Driver had called him at 1:08 a.m. that morning. Taxi Driver testified that after he got Ramos's call, it took him "fifteen or twenty minutes to drive from his West Valley home to [the murder scene], and that he parked and waited another fifteen or twenty minutes before [Ramos] and [Accomplice] 'arrived.'" Taxi Driver also initially told police that he did not see the fight and that Ramos claimed to have been hit, but did not mention being strangled.

         ¶14 Taxi Driver testified differently at trial. There, he stated that he operated a private taxi service and that on the night of the murder, Ramos called him in the early morning for a ride. Taxi Driver claimed that he saw both Ramos and Accomplice getting into a car. He then saw an angry man get out of that car and heard Ramos say in Spanish, "This isn't the right car, sorry."[4] Taxi Driver said that the man refused to accept the apology and fought with Ramos. Taxi Driver further testified that he never saw Ramos with a knife but did see a woman try to tase Ramos. Taxi Driver stated that Ramos looked "dizzy" and fell, and that he "was bleeding all over [the left side of] his face," but photographs taken upon Ramos's arrest show only one abrasion on his forehead and no other injury to his face.

         ¶15 When asked about the discrepancies in his accounts, Taxi Driver testified that he was "nervous" during the police interview and "might have omitted a few details here and there." Taxi Driver asserted that he had testified to "the truth"-that he witnessed the fight, including Ramos being choked, and that Ramos ...

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