Experts side with police in city shooting death
By Brent Curtis
Herald Staff | April 23,2008
Vyto Starinskas / Rutland herald
Ramel Ramos, left, listens to his attorney Matt Harnett attempt to get his charges dropped in Rutland District Court on Wednesday. Rutland County State's Attorney James Mongeon listens at right.
Former public defender Michael Mello said he has a good idea how Rutland County prosecutors and Rutland City police feel about the recent dismissal of one of the city's biggest cases in years and he doesn't envy them.
"Those folks can't be happy about it," Mello, now a professor at the Vermont Law School, said Tuesday. "That drug-related homicide in Rutland represented a perfect storm."
Today marks one week since the state's case against 18-year-old Ramel Ramos ended quietly with a plea that allowed the Albany, N.Y., man to go free after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in Rutland District Court.
The charges had come from a Feb. 4 incident in which one man was shot and killed and another was injured during an apparent drug deal at a Grove Street apartment.
But while law enforcement officials said Tuesday they're not happy about the resolution of the case, the door appears open for other law enforcement agencies to get involved in the case that galvanized Rutland residents.
The things that went wrong in the case between the time of Ramos' arrest and the dismissal of the case last week seem to be linked to 29-year-old Javon Shelton, the only other surviving participant in the shootout and a key witness in the case, according to Rutland County State's Attorney James Mongeon.
Shelton told police Ramos initiated the violence by putting a gun to his head while he was trying to buy two bags of marijuana from Ramos' friend, 29-year-old Carlos Vasquez.
Vasquez was killed in the shootout. Shelton hasn't been seen since he checked out of Rutland Regional Medical Center, and police said they have no leads on his whereabouts.
Rutland City police Detective Ray Lamoria said investigators were repeatedly frustrated by witness statements made days and even weeks after the incident that changed the complexion of the case.
"It was one of those cases that you never knew walking in if you would see something different on your desk," he said Tuesday. "Even though it's frustrating, sometimes you need to step back and say 'It is what it is.'"
What police and prosecutors had at the end of the day was a dead body, some marijuana, conflicting witness statements and two eyewitnesses who were identified as rival crack dealers fighting over a den.
Mello said he had no criticism of the way the case was handled by Rutland prosecutors and police.
"I have a lot more sympathy for law enforcement than many might think," he said. "The cops have to make a decision in real time based on incomplete information."
In the Ramos case, Mello's first thought was that police might have realized too late that Shelton, not Ramos, should be held.
But he said police can't be faulted for letting Shelton go if they had no evidence at the time to hold him.
"There really isn't any legal recourse for holding someone without cause," he said.
The former defense attorney's opinion matched those of former Rutland County Sheriff R.J. Elrick and former Chittenden County State's Attorney Bob Simpson.
"I can do an investigative detention during the preliminary stage of an investigation, but I can't detain someone unreasonably," said Elrick, who is now director of the Vermont Police Academy. "And if they don't want to keep in touch with us there's no way to restrict their movement."
Simpson, who retired as a prosecutor two years ago, said he dealt with potentially transient witnesses by videotaping depositions before they disappeared. The depositions, conducted in front of a judge and with cross-examination by a defense attorney, can be introduced in court as testimony.
But Simpson said he's not sure that a deposition would have worked out in the Ramos case because of the potential for legal liability on the part of Shelton, who witnesses said in an affidavit was buying and selling drugs from the apartment.
Simpson said Shelton could have evoked his Fifth Amendment right to protect himself against self-incrimination to avoid answering questions during the deposition.
"That problem comes up a lot in drug cases," Simpson said. "It sounds like a terribly difficult situation they were in. No one likes to testify in those cases without immunity but you don't want to grant immunity if you're not sure who the guilty party is. It's easy to get stuck in your tracks."
Mongeon said Monday that Shelton's testimony was integral to the case because prosecutors needed to show that Ramos did not act in self defense or defense of others once the shooting started.
While the premise may seem odd since witness accounts of events leading right up to the shooting indicated that Ramos and Vasquez planned to put Shelton out of business, Mello said that depending on which side "escalated to deadly force" first was the aggressor in the legal sense of the word.
"Even if it wasn't a valid self-defense claim, it would go to the attempt," he said.
Even if Shelton had been found, Mello said the prosecution would have faced an uphill battle trying to convict Ramos.
"It's the worst of all cases for a prosecutor," he said. "All the survivors are to one degree or another not credible or believable."
One possibility not confirmed by city or U.S. officials but which the experts believe could make the difference in the case is the possibility of federal involvement in the case — whether against Ramos or Shelton.
The U.S. Attorney's office said Tuesday it isn't actively involved in the case and U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson said he wouldn't speculate on his office's involvement.
City police said they had no comment on the possibility of federal involvement although Lamoria and Chief Anthony Bossi said the investigation would continue.
"Stay tuned," Lamoria said.
Federal intervention would certainly eliminate a number of obstacles that local law enforcement officials face.
For example, finding Shelton, who is believed to have left Vermont, would be a lot easier for federal officials who don't recognize city, county or state lines of jurisdiction.
"They would have a much better chance of finding Shelton because they have a lot more resources," Mello said.
Simpson said he never ran into a similar situation during his time as a prosecutor, but he agreed that the federal government would have a much better chance of finding Shelton.
"I think it would be welcome in this case because the federal officials have national jurisdiction," he said.
Contact Brent Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org.