YAKIMA, Wash. — A convicted murderer seeking to have an 80-year sentence reduced for his role in the killing of an Outlook family in 1993 was instead given more prison time by a Yakima County Superior Court judge Tuesday.
In arriving at his decision, Superior Court Judge Douglas Federspiel said the slayings were not the impulsive actions of an immature 14-year-old — Joel Ramos’ age at the time — but were “clear, cold (and) calculating.”
Ramos, 34, is currently serving four consecutive 20-year terms for his role in the bludgeoning and stabbing deaths of Michael and Lynn Skelton, both 34, and their sons Jason, 12, and Bryan, 6. Ramos and co-defendant Miguel Gaitan were both 14 at the time.
The judge said he was especially troubled by the murder of the 6-year-old boy, who was bludgeoned with a piece of stovewood to eliminate witnesses to the murders of his parents and brother.
Federspiel called Bryan Skelton’s murder an execution. Instead of reducing Ramos’ 80-year sentence to 26 years and eight months as suggested by the prisoner’s attorney, he increased it to 85 years.
“In weighing these actions, I believe they were monstrous,” the judge said, adding, “The punishment is just. It protects the public.”
The slayings sent shock waves through the Yakima Valley for the savagery and fears it was a gang initiation.
Gaitan, acknowledged by authorities as the instigator of the crime, was convicted of aggravated first-degree murder at trial and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ramos pleaded guilty to three counts of felony first-degree murder — similar in effect to an accessory charge — for the murders of Michael, Lynn and Jason Skelton.
He also pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder for the slaying of Bryan Skelton, admitting he helped kill the boy, who was caught hiding under the covers of his bed. In exchange, Ramos was sentenced to four consecutive 20-year terms.
Now 34, Ramos got a new day in court due to a technical glitch in his probation — which wasn’t set to take effect until 2061 — that opened the door to a full-blown resentencing following changes in state and federal law.
First, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that judges have the discretion to impose concurrent sentences in cases like the Ramos case. Then, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
That decision was in line with a series of Supreme Court rulings based on developing brain science that has drawn an increasingly bright line between juveniles and adults. For example, in 2005, the high court banned execution of anyone for crimes committed while younger than 18.
During a hearing Monday in Federspiel’s courtroom, an attorney for Ramos portrayed her client as a model prisoner who avoids gangs and has an exemplary history of employment and education behind bars.
The defense also presented expert testimony on advances in brain research that has solidified the understanding of adolescent brain development, now thought not to be complete until about the age of 25.
Ramos, meanwhile, pronounced himself a different person than he was at 14, and wept as he apologized for the slayings.
“Words cannot express how remorseful or shameful I feel,” he added, crying as he acknowledged that what he did “I can never take it back.”
Federspiel said he accepted that changes in the law at the state and federal level allowed him to resentence Ramos.
But that discretion cut both ways, so long as the court’s findings were carefully laid out for the record.
In reaching his decision, Federspiel did in fact make a record as he recited several facts about the killings that he found troublesome.
First, he said, the way Ramos blocked the back door of the Skelton’s home while Gaitan entered from the front suggested they knew the family was home and didn’t want them to escape. Both boys were wearing gloves and had armed themselves with knives.
The judge said Ramos had several chances to intervene as Gaitan first took out Michael Skelton, the father, who was partly disabled from an industrial accident, then bludgeoned and stabbed Lynn Skelton in the shower.
Ramos was there but didn’t intervene as 12-year-old Jason Skelton, a classmate at Granger Middle School, begged Gaitan to leave his mother alone before he too was slain.
And by his own version of events, Ramos then participated in the heartless killing of 6-year-old Bryan Skelton, ostensibly so there would be no witnesses.
Finally, Federspiel said, Ramos helped Gaitan try to steal property from the Skelton home — they left items in the family’s car because neither teen knew how to drive a manual transmission — and then buried his blood-soaked clothes at a dumpsite on the Yakama reservation.
Taken as a whole, the judge said, the killings “were not indicative of impulsive acts. These acts were planned.”
Earlier in the day, Ramos’ lawyer, Stacy Kinzer of Seattle, had asked the judge to run the three felony murder sentences of 20 years concurrently to each other and concurrently to the first-degree murder count for the killing of Bryan Skelton.
Kinzer suggested the judge increase the count for killing Bryan Skelton to the top of the sentencing range, 320 months. That would have made for a full sentence of 26 years and eight months.
Deputy prosecutor Ken Ramm asked the court to reaffirm the original sentence: four consecutive 20-year terms, for a total of 80 years.
Federspiel responded by running the three felony murder sentences consecutive to each other, for a total of 60 years.
But his decision to increase the count for Bryan Skelton’s murder to 25 years, then run it consecutive to the other counts for a total of 85 years, appeared to stun the defendant and members of his family.
They left the courtroom afterward without speaking to the news media. Kinzer declined comment except to say the sentence “wasn’t ideal.”
Ramm was slightly less reticent.
“Put that under the heading, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’” he said as he strode out of the courtroom.
Federspiel’s ruling could be construed as a warning to Gaitan, who is eligible to appeal his life-without-parole sentence due to the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Miller v. Alabama.
That decision banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles, but did not automatically commute life sentences. Instead, the ruling means only that inmates will have the opportunity to seek reductions.
• Chris Bristol can be reached at 509-577-7748 or firstname.lastname@example.org.