Mental Competency Trial For Alleged Hate Killing Ends In Hung Jury

Mental Competency Trial For Alleged Hate Killing Ends In Hung Jury

Martín Di Felice

Jurors deadlocked Monday on whether a 30-year-old former Pizza Hut delivery driver accused of killing a gay co-worker because of the victim’s sexual orientation is mentally competent to stand trial.

Jurors spent all of Friday and part of Monday deliberating but were unable to reach a consensus on the mental competency of Miguel Angel Bautista Ramirez, who faces a first-degree murder charge stemming from the July 13, 2014, shotgun slaying of 20-year-old Juan Ceballos in Mecca.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Johnetta Anderson determined that additional deliberations would not change the outcome and declared a mistrial. She scheduled a hearing for Aug. 23.

Doubt regarding Ramirez’s mental competency led another Riverside County Superior Court judge to suspend criminal proceedings in November 2016. Criminal proceedings have been started and stopped since then.

The court assigned two doctors to meet with Ramirez and report back on his mental state. After both came back with different findings, both sides asked for the jury trial, which began last Wednesday, to determine Ramirez’s competency, according to Riverside County District Attorney’s Office spokesman John Hall.

Dr. Joy Smith Clark testified she had twice examined Ramirez and found him mentally incapable of assisting his defense attorney. Her most recent examination was in May.

Dr. Robert Suiter testified that Ramirez admitted to having a past prescription for an anti-psychotic drug, but ultimately found the defendant capable of understanding trial proceedings. His last meeting with Ramirez was in October 2017.

Should Ramirez eventually be found fit to stand trial and is convicted of murder, with a special circumstance allegation that the killing was a crime, he would face life in prison without the possibility of parole. A second special circumstance allegation of committing an intentional murder makes him eligible for the death penalty if found guilty, but prosecutors opted not to pursue capital punishment in 2016.

During the defendant’s 2015 preliminary hearing, a Pizza Hut manager testified that Ramirez seemed obsessed with the question of whether Ceballos was gay. The witness said the defendant often used slurs to refer to the victim and that the two delivery drivers were once caught in a dishwashing area of the restaurant squaring off, Ramirez brandishing a small pocket knife and Ceballos an electronic stun gun.

Ceballos was described as a private person who rarely discussed his sexual orientation.

“Anyone who talked to Juan knew that he was (gay),” Liana Pena, who supervised the two men, testified.

On the night of the shooting, Ceballos left work and stopped at a gas station sometime after 11:30 p.m., Riverside County sheriff’s investigator Nelson Gomez testified. Surveillance video shows a gold-colored pickup appearing to follow the victim’s silver sedan to the gas station, then turn off its headlights. When Ceballos leaves the business, the gold pickup appears to follow, Gomez said.

At the time of the killing, Ramirez drove a gold Toyota Tacoma truck, according to authorities.

As Ceballos arrived at his home in the 65000 block of Dale Kiler Road, he sent a text message to his 17-year-old brother that read “come,” Gomez testified.

Moments later, the brother went to the window and saw Ceballos in the drivers’ seat of his car, as a suspect described as a stocky Hispanic man with a light complexion and dark clothing walked up, pointed a shotgun into the driver compartment and fired, Gomez said.

The gunman racked the shotgun and fired again, the witness told investigators.

A search of the suspect’s home turned up a receipt for a shotgun pistol-grip, which Ramirez had allegedly purchased online in the weeks before the killing, Gomez said.

The murder weapon was not found after the shooting. Ramirez was arrested in Coachella 15 days later.