LOS ANGELES – Convicted serial killer Richard Ramirez's death sentence in the terrifying 1980s Night Stalker slayings should be overturned because he wasn't properly defended at his trial, an appeals lawyer told the California Supreme Court on Tuesday.
"This case was the blind leading the blind," said attorney Geraldine S. Russell.
Deputy Attorney General Margaret E. Maxwell countered that Ramirez had chosen his own lawyers.
"Mr. Ramirez made his choice and that should be the end of it," Maxwell said.
Historically, judges have intervened when court-appointed attorneys did not adequately represent defendants. Ramirez's appeal will test the Supreme Court's willingness to allow judges to intervene with hired lawyers in capital cases.
Addressing the issue of when a trial judge should step in, Justice Carol A. Corrigan asked, "What is it we're supposed to do here? Say, 'Mr. Ramirez, you picked two doofuses as attorneys and you have no right to keep them?'"
Maxwell said only in extreme cases should a judge intervene: when a defense attorney is unlicensed, has a physical incapacity, or is unwilling to represent the client. She added flagrant incompetence to the list when questioned by the court.
Russell argued that Ramirez's two trial attorneys, who she said had been held in contempt a total of four times before the trial, fit that criteria.
Ramirez is on death row at San Quentin and did not attend the hearing.
Ramirez, now 46, was sentenced to death in 1989 for committing 13 grisly Los Angeles-area murders in the mid-1980s. He left satanic symbols at some murder scenes and forced some victims to "swear to Satan" after he sneaked through their unlocked windows and doors.
Ramirez's lawyers, Daniel Hernandez and Arturo Hernandez, who are not related, were absent for long periods during the trial, Russell said.
Arturo Hernandez, still a practicing lawyer in San Jose, told The Associated Press in telephone interview Monday that the Ramirez defense team did its best in a difficult case.
"They're Monday morning quarterbacking," Hernandez said. "But we did it pro bono. Didn't get a penny. For free, I think we did a hell of a good job."
Daniel Hernandez died in 2003.