Murder Conviction Reversed Because Preliminary Hearing Testimony Was Wrongly Admitted as Evidence

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A man and a woman were convicted of murder with special circumstances, due at least in part to the admission of a two-year-old preliminary hearing transcript of the testimony of a key witness who did not appear at trial. Defendants argued that the read transcript was admitted in error because it prevented the constitutional right to cross-examination. They also said the prosecution failed to “exercise reasonable diligence” in attempting to locate the witness until two weeks before the trial. Both the man, Raymundo Ortega Ramirez, and the woman, Gabriela Rangel Ayala, were convicted in Riverside County Superior Court.

The defendants appealed, challenging the admission of the witness transcript of Breanna S., and were awarded a new trial by the court of appeals. In a unanimous 3-0 opinion authored by Justice William Dato with concurrences by Acting Presiding Justice Terry B. O’Rourke and Justice Julia C. Kelety from Division One of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, the justices ruled that the trial judges Diane B. Altamirano and John D. Molloy of Riverside County Superior Court erred by not ruling that the prosecution failed to exercise reasonable diligence in attempting to locate Breanna S., the main witness. As a result, the appellate court ruled that her testimony should not have been permitted at trial.

Justice Dato’s opinion began with a recap of the facts. In August 2016, Ayala was living in an abandoned recreational vehicle in Riverside County with her three sons. At the time of the murders, Ayala was six months pregnant by a man identified in the opinion only as “Samuel,” the eventual murder victim. When she told Samuel she no longer wanted to see him, he responded by threatening to kill her and tell her husband, who was then in prison, about their affair.

In September, Breanna was homeless and Cheyenne, the girlfriend of Ayala’s son Victor, arranged for her to meet Ayala so she would have somewhere to live. The same day that Breanna moved into the RV, Ramirez moved into Ayala’s RV as well. They became a couple. On the night of September 11, Ayala began getting threatening phone calls from Samuel. She borrowed Breanna’s phone, called Samuel, and, according to Breanna, “lured him” to come over for a “threesome” with her and Breanna. Breanna later said she was not interested and she left the RV, but still overheard Ayala say, “Dear Lord Satan, please let this go through.’’

Breanna told the preliminary hearing that a few minutes after Samuel arrived she “heard the screams of someone dying.” Soon after, Ayala called for Breanna, who also testified that she saw Ramirez and one of Ayala’s sons “pull Samuel out of the RV on a sheet” and bring his body to a fire pit where they set the body and their own bloody clothes on fire.

After the bodies were discovered and the defendants arrested, two preliminary hearings, at which Breanna testified, were held in 2017. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the district attorney’s office lost contact with Breanna. The murder trial was finally held in June 2021 after the People filed their witness list with Breanna’s name on it. But they also filed a motion in limine to permit them to introduce her preliminary hearing testimony because she was unavailable according to Evidence Code §1291 which says “Evidence of former testimony is not made inadmissible by the hearsay rule if the declarant is unavailable as a witness…” The appellate court ruled that the trial court erred when it permitted Breanna’s preliminary hearing testimony as evidence.

The district attorney’s investigator testified at a hearing held to determine whether the prosecution used due diligence to locate Breanna. The investigator said he went to two of Breanna’s possible addresses and found her daughter living with her grandmother. But he did not find Breanna, who the grandmother said was “homeless and comes and goes like the wind.” A computerized search by the Los Angeles Police Department also failed to locate her. After the hearing, trial Judges Altamirano and Malloy concluded there had been a good faith effort and reasonable diligence to try to locate Breanna.

Justice Dato disagreed but wrote that there was still sufficient evidence to permit Ramirez’s retrial for his first-degree murder conviction, including with the special circumstances of lying in wait and torture. He also said that the trial court should not have introduced evidence of Ayala’s “Satan worshipping.” But he disagreed that the court erred when it would not instruct the jury that Breanna was an accomplice as a matter of law.

The opinion next provided a summary of the laws governing the defendants’ constitutional right to confront the witnesses against them, which he quickly clarified as not being absolute, especially when a witness was unavailable. He concluded that “the prosecution did nothing to locate” Breanna throughout the COVID and other delays until just two weeks before the trial. Dato also reiterated that Breanna was “essential to the prosecution’s case.” As a result, the appellate court concluded that according to precedent, “When there is ‘a reasonable possibility’ that the error might have contributed to the verdict, reversal is required.”

Dato wrote, “We conclude the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt as to either defendant because Breanna’s testimony was critical to several aspects of the prosecution’s case.” Ramirez also claimed in his appeal that he could not be retried for first-degree murder as a matter of law because of insufficient evidence about his premeditation and the existence of special circumstances. After reviewing the evidence, Dato concluded it “is sufficient for a reasonable jury to conclude Ramirez committed first degree murder or lying in wait, to allow retrial for the murder charge and special allegation against him.” A similar evidence review found the “torture special circumstance” may be retried, as well.

The trial court, however, should not have admitted Breanna’s evidence of Ayala’s Satan worship as this evidence was not relevant to the facts, according to the Fourth Circuit opinion. In addition, the appellate court ruled that Breanna was not an accomplice as a matter of law because there was “no evidence” that she had the requisite intent. These portions of the opinion were unpublished.

Another trial will be held with or without Breanna’s testimony and per the appellate ruling.

Maureen Rubin
Maureen Rubin
Maureen is a graduate of Catholic University Law School and holds a Master's degree from USC. She is a licensed attorney in California and was an Emeritus Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge specializing in media law and writing. With a background in both the Carter White House and the U.S. Congress, Maureen enriches her scholarly work with an extensive foundation of real-world knowledge.
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