By Angela Patel and Angie Madrid
RIVERSIDE, CA — Closing arguments from the prosecution and defense for the case of four prison inmates—charged with assault with a deadly weapon and assault with intent to produce great bodily injury—were presented on Tuesday in Riverside County Superior Court.
The inmates on trial for the assault are Ruben Gonzalez Ramirez, Anthony Alexander Muñoz, Manuel Barbosa, and Angel Jose Lopez.
The altercation took place in May 2018 at California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, CA, within the dorm room of the victim, where inmates allegedly attacked the victim using multiple weapons, causing great bodily injury including a subdural hematoma, a broken nose, and bruises covering the entire body.
Judge Dean Benjamini called Deputy District Attorney Alberto Recalde to present his closing argument to the jury, and Recalde described the victim’s helplessness in the situation.
“Ramirez, Munoz, and Barbosa kicked, punched, and beat [the victim] on the floor,” said Recalde, adding “the [victim] tried to defend himself but was unable to.”
DDA Recalde also mentioned the weapons used during the attack—a mop, a guitar, and a walking cane, the latter two being possessions of the victim himself. Recalde suggested the weapons were readily available to the defendants, allowing the attack to occur quickly and unexpectedly.
While addressing the jury, DDA Recalde tried to avert any uncertainty the defense may invoke about the victim’s testimony, as the victim had appeared reluctant and dismissive.
“The way he testified was consistent with someone who had been beaten by the defendants in his room,” claimed Recalde, “Did he testify as someone fearful of retribution? Yes.”
Recalde closed his statement, claiming, “Even in a prison setting, people should feel somewhat safe. They should be able to do their time, be in peace, and get out.”
After Recalde’s closing argument, Defense Attorney Joel Rank, representing defendant Angel Jose Lopez, began his closing argument by questioning the credibility of the victim.
As he addressed the jury, Rank asserted, “You can disbelieve [the victim] because of his prior convictions. He was convicted of an attempted murder charge and three domestic violence charges. He was also charged with a second degree burglary.”
Rank said the victim lacked credibility due to his “horrible eyesight” which prevented him from seeing his attackers. “He needs glasses to find his glasses. He couldn’t tell who hit him first,” explained Rank.
As Rank listed reasons to disbelieve the victim, he also mentioned the victim’s demeanor during his testimony. “He told us all that he didn’t want to be here. He appeared angry. He was unwilling to answer my questions and refused to look at the defendants,” explained Rank.
Defense Attorney Rank emphasized the lack of evidence against his client, noting there were no marks or injuries on Lopez’s body during the strip search that occurred after the altercation. According to Rank, Lopez had no marks since he was never at the site of the incident.
Rank proclaimed that the prosecution failed to include this information in their statement. He argued, “We all know where Mr. Lopez was. He was working his job in the program room. He was there at the time of the fight and after the fight. We know when he was photographed he had that smile on his face like he had no idea what the heck was going on.”
While finishing his closing argument, Rank asserted that the victim wrongfully identified Lopez as one of his attackers due to his visual impairment and “false sense of reality.”
Public Defender Susan Do, representing defendant Ramirez, also spoke at length about the issues with the investigation carried out by law enforcement and the victim’s questionable credibility.
Do argued that many of the officers involved in the case, including Sgt. Black and Lt. Paul Popplvwell, who testified last week, had mishandled evidence and failed to do a thorough investigation.
Popplvwell, a high-ranked corrections officer at California Rehabilitation Center, did not personally inspect any of the alleged deadly assault weapons, including the victim’s guitar, cane, and a mop, charged PD Do, noting that there were no photos or videos taken of these objects, and they were not held onto by law enforcement.
Popplvwell also did not record his crucial interview with the defendant that occurred three days after the incident, and, after the interview, Popplvwell never tried interviewing any other inmates that might have witnessed the fight, the defense attorney asserted.
It was these investigative errors, along with others, that later led defense attorney Bosky Kathuria, representing defendant Muñoz, to say that this was “the sloppiest investigation of all time.”
Kathuria presented the jury with what he called “17 categories of reasonable doubt,” going one by one through every flaw he saw in the prosecution’s case.
Do and Kathuria, along with Barbosa’s defense attorney Renato Cervantes, all maintained that the victim was completely unreliable as the only eyewitness of the incident.
Like defense counsel Rank, the other three defense attorneys argued that the victim was unable to accurately identify his attackers during the interview with Lt. Popplvwell. At the time, the victim’s left eye was swollen shut, his left eye was heavily bruised, he didn’t have his glasses, and he was under the influence of judgment-impairing narcotics.
In order to identify his attackers, Popplvwell had shown the victim a photo lineup of one inch by one inch black and white photos of each of the 70 to 80 inmates living in the dorm at the time. The victim was given a magnifying glass to see the inmates more easily, but the defense still argued that there was no way he could have made clear and correct identifications.
As with many of the other pieces of evidence in this case, this photo lineup was never recovered to be presented to the court.
Defense attorney Kathuria also emphasized that no forensic investigation was done on this case, and there was no blood, fingerprints, or other physical evidence that the defendants were ever at the scene.
In addition, Kathuria said it would have been impossible for the victim to have seen who attacked him after the first punch was thrown, since his glasses were knocked off and he reported being attacked from behind.
At the end of his statement, Kathuria told the jury a fictional story about a hunter and his son.
The son desperately wanted to shoot a big buck, he said, so much that he eventually ended up shooting an innocent doe despite his father’s warnings. Just like the son in the story, the defense attorney argued, “[the victim] imagined something that wasn’t there. He didn’t see it, but he chose to believe it.”
“[The victim] doesn’t care about justice,” Kathuria said. “He doesn’t care about the identity of who attacked him. He said [in his testimony], ‘One inmate is as good as any of them.’”
Do also mentioned this statement from the victim, and tried to show that the victim had a personal interest in getting these defendants convicted.
She mentioned that the victim did not give any physical descriptions of his attackers beyond their being Hispanic, and Do argued that he had said the word “‘Hispanic’ with disdain.”
She added, “I shudder to think where our society is going if we allow the prosecution to convict people with such little evidence, with such contradicting evidence, because what’s next? Who’s next?”
Do asked the jury, “I know there’s not enough evidence in this case, and you know it, too. And just as I asked during the opening, I am once again asking you to register a verdict of not guilty.”
After the closing arguments from the defense, DDA Recalde gave a brief final statement in which he argued that the jury should believe the victim’s testimony and give him justice despite the faulty investigation.
“[The victim’s] testimony lines up with the evidence that is available,” Recalde urged. “He should not be punished, should not be denied justice, just because the investigators were not performing to the best of their abilities.”
The jurors must decide whether to convict each of the four defendants for assault with a deadly weapon, assault with force to produce great bodily injury, or the lesser crime of simple assault. Deliberations will begin on Wednesday.