Debbie Martines, family photo; clip from AP's Ryan Soderlin

Debbie Martines, family photo; clip from AP's Ryan Soderlin

This is Debbie Martines. She died in 1994 when a man who had abused her for years came home drunk and killed her in front of her two children. Martines was pregnant when she died.


Joaquin Jack Ramos; photo from SDDOC

This is Joaquin Jack Ramos. He is in prison for killing Debbie Martines. He pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter and received a life sentence. He has a parole hearing today.

Marion Michael Rounds, former governor, candidate for U.S. Senate

Marion Michael Rounds, former governor, candidate for U.S. Senate

This is Marion Michael Rounds. He commuted Ramos's sentence at the end of his term as South Dakota governor, making Ramos eligible for parole. Rounds claims he was unaware of Debbie Martines's family's opposition to the change. (Rounds seems to have signed a lot of papers at the end of his term without being fully aware of their impact.) Rounds has since exerted his political influence to dissuade the Board of Pardons and Parole from setting Ramos free.

Annette Bosworth

Annette Bosworth

This is Annette Bosworth. After attacking this blog, Bosworth circulated a campaign ad citing this blog's coverage of the Martines-Ramos-Rounds story to take votes away from Mike Rounds in the GOP Senate primary. Rounds won 55.5% of the vote; Bosworth, 5.75%. Bosworth has said nothing about the Ramos commutation since then. Bosworth is in court today defending herself against felony perjury charges.

John Hult offers a reasonably thorough review of the facts and opposing opinions in the Martines-Ramos case. Among the details, Hult gets this summary of the events of that horrible night in 1994 from Ramos's prosecutor, now Pennington County state's attorney Mark Vargo:

On the night of Martines' killing, she'd left the children in their Rapid Valley home and gone with another taxi driver to look for him.

"The rule was that we couldn't have dinner, and it was getting late," said Martines' daughter, Jackie McLain.

Ramos returned, intoxicated, and became enraged.

"He was enraged, not just because she wasn't there, but because she was with another man," Vargo said.

When Martines returned, Ramos grabbed a gun to go after the man who'd given her a ride, McLain said. Martines tried to stop him, McLain said, and Ramos grabbed her by the hair and began hitting her with the gun. Investigators found tufts of hair in the house.

The gun went off, sending a bullet tearing through Martines' shoulder and through her abdomen [Jonathan Hult, "Man Who Killed Girlfriend in 1994 up for Second Parole Hearing," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.07.14].

The gun went off. Notice the absence of agency in that wording. Ramos says he didn't mean to shoot. Vargo agrees, but...

Vargo wrote in 1994 that he didn't believe Ramos meant to fire the gun at the moment he did, but there was little doubt he wasn't concerned about Martines' life.

"He was pistol-whipping her with a loaded gun," Vargo said [Hult, 2014.07.14].

Ramos's family says Ramos is a different man. He's spoken to kids and government panels about his crime and domestic abuse.

Leland Steva at KELO seems to find Ramos's story more interesting that that of Martines's family. Steva refers to Ramos's spending "the last few decades" behind bars (1994 to 2014: that's two decades, not a few.) Steva spends a lot of time talking about how Ramos's estranged son loves his father. One son's love may make for gripping television, but I'm having trouble seeing how Ramos's good relationship with his son bears on the parole board's assessment of the gravity of his crime against someone else or the danger a killer presents if released. The trail court considered the issue of Ramos's capacity for good relationships in 1995:

The trial court considered Ramos' past relationships and determined that, "when they have been good, [they] have been very, very good. When they are bad, they are very, very bad."{fn3} The trial court called attention to the "danger side" of Ramos' personality which "surfaced ... when Debbie Jo Martines died."

The trial court noted Ramos' prior offenses have been misdemeanors. It stated, "When one looks at the nature of the offenses, however, they all have some degree of violence associated with them, Mr. Ramos, [96 SDO 244] violence largely centered around those individuals that you supposedly hold near and dear and, ... involve women." The trial court pointed out, "[t]he instances in which you lose control have become more frequent" [Justice Richard W. Sabers, South Dakota v. Ramos, 1996.04.03].

Twenty years is a long time. People can change. South Dakotans have received lesser sentences for killing. Folks convicted of first-degree manslaughter also received sentences as harsh as Ramos's.

Debbie Martines died twenty years, four months, and twenty-two days ago. Joaquin Jack Ramos has sat behind bars for causing her death for almost as long. Governor Mike Rounds, in a fit of inattention on his way out the door from the Capitol, turned the killing into a political football four years ago.

In the most generous world, where we take Ramos and his family at their word, a reformed Ramos lives with the personal, inescapable punishment imposed by conscience and memory. But is when is that enough of a price to pay for a crime? How many days and years of liberty must we exact from those who err, and specifically from those who end a life?

I don't have a clear answer. Evidently, neither did Mike Rounds when he signed the commutation papers in 2010.