A man serving an 80-year sentence for the slaughter of an Outlook family in 1993 will find out today if his sentence still stands or should be reduced.
Joel Ramos, 34, was sentenced to 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 of the slayings, which sent shock waves through the Yakima Valley for its savagery and fears it was a gang initiation.
Rivaled at the time only by the 1988 murders of Mike and Dorothy Nickoloff, an elderly Parker-area couple, the slayings coincided with an explosion in the Valley’s crime rate, and the attack is routinely cited as a defining low point in the region’s history.
During a hearing Monday in the courtroom of Yakima County Superior Court Judge Douglas Federspiel, Ramos wept as he apologized for the slayings.
Without directly asking the judge to reduce his sentence, Ramos instead focusing on what he described as “the pain, guilt, sadness, grief, sorrow and shame that I feel most every day.
“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 would issue a ruling today after closing arguments from lawyers in the case. Ramos is represented by Stacy Kinzer of Seattle. Veteran prosecutor Ken Ramm represents the state.
In doing so, the judge requested further briefing by counsel on several legal issues, particularly the purpose of the hearing.
It is the second time in two years that Ramos’ case has found its way to a Yakima County courtroom. And, like the first time, the purpose is not clear cut.
In 2011, Ramos leveraged the need for a technical fix to his probation — not scheduled to begin until 2061 — to ask the court for a shot at a full-blown resentencing.
Judge James Gavin conceded case law gave him the discretion to reopen the case and resentence Ramos, but declined to do so. Instead, he limited himself to the probation glitch.
An appeals court reversed, however, saying Gavin, who has since retired, failed to adequately explain why he didn’t act on Ramos’ request that his four 20-year sentences be served concurrently instead of consecutively.
Ramos’ request gained further momentum last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
The decision follows a series of Supreme Court rulings based on developing brain science that has drawn an increasingly bright line between juveniles and adults. In 2005, the high court banned execution of anyone for crimes committed while younger than 18.
In court Monday, Federspiel heard testimony from several sheriff’s deputies who investigated the Skelton homicides and interacted with the then-14-year-old defendant.
According to evidence presented in the case, Gaitan and Ramos armed themselves with knives and, wearing gloves, broke into the Skeltons’ mobile home.
They first ambushed Michael Skelton, who was disabled from an industrial accident, beating him with a club and repeatedly stabbing him in the abdomen.
Lynn Skelton was stabbed more than 50 times as she was taking a shower. Jason Skelton, a classmate of Gaitan and Ramos at Granger Middle School, was clubbed to death when he came to his mother’s aid. Last was 6-year-old Bryan, caught peeking out from under his bed covers.
Deputies Jim Sherman and George Town told the court they believe Gaitan planned and instigated the crime.
Sherman, now retired, described Ramos as cocky and defensive. He said he spoke to the defendant at length two years ago and was surprised at the change in his demeanor.
Ramos was “polite, cooperative and even exhibited a sense of humor that I had never seen in him before,” Sherman testified.
“So he’s grown up,” Ramm said.
“Appears to have, yes,” Sherman replied.
In further testimony, Sherman said Ramos was small for his age and came from a broken home. His mother worked hard and wasn’t able to supervise him.
“I had a 12-year-old at the time, and there was a vast difference between my daughter and Joel, simply because of the environment,” Sherman said, adding after a long pause, “He was different than some 14-year-olds.”
Town said Ramos tried to blame the slayings on Gaitan, but admitted he participated in the killing of 6-year-old Bryan Skelton. Other evidence suggested he also helped subdue and kill Michael Skelton, the father.
Asked about Ramos’ maturity level at the time, Town said, “He seemed very typical.”
The court also heard testimony from a witness for the defense, Dr. Terry Lee, a psychiatrist with the University of Washington School of Medicine who specializes in child and adolescent behavior.
Lee testified that new research using brain scans and other medical technology has solidified findings that brain development is not complete until about age 25.
Ramm questioned the significance of such research — saying it only confirms what people have long known about adolescents — and suggested the real issue was premeditation.
“They know that bashing a 6-year-old’s head is wrong, don’t they?” he asked Lee.
Lee responded that, as he understood it, the slayings were not premeditated and that Ramos had been a follower to Gaitan.
In that scenario, he said, “Your decision-making would rapidly go downhill.”
Gaitan took his case to trial, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
The Supreme Court’s new ban on mandatory life sentences for juveniles did not automatically commute life sentences. Instead, the ruling means only that inmates will have the opportunity to seek reductions.
Yakima County prosecutors said Gaitan is expected to challenge his sentence in the near future.