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Prosecutors gather new evidence arsenal in retrial

A second trial in the 1995 murder of an elderly woman starts this week, minus a once-damning confession.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

Nathan Joe Ramirez offered the most compelling piece of testimony at his murder trial in 1996. On a videotape played for the jury, Ramirez confessed to Pasco sheriff's detectives that he shot 71-year-old Mildred Boroski twice in the head and helped dispose of her body.

The confession helped convince a jury that Ramirez, then 18, was guilty of first-degree murder and deserved to die for his crime.

But the Florida Supreme Court threw out the conviction and death sentence, ruling that Pasco sheriff's detectives illegally obtained the confession from Ramirez. This week, seven years after the crime, Ramirez is scheduled to return to a New Port Richey courtroom to stand trial again for Boroski's murder.

The stakes haven't changed, but the evidence has.

Prosecutors face a materially weaker case this time: The high court's 1999 ruling prohibits the government from playing Ramirez's confession for jurors at the trial.

"Whenever you take out a great piece of evidence, it's damaging to your case," said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis, who prosecuted Ramirez in 1996.

Prosecutors have other evidence, of course, including a taped conversation between Ramirez and his co-defendant, Jonathan Grimshaw, who is serving a life sentence for his role in Boroski's killing. Grimshaw is not expected to testify.

But prosecutors have no physical evidence linking Ramirez to the crime. So detectives have spent the past few years finding another way to get Ramirez's words before a jury. They have talked to dozens of inmates who have shared cells with Ramirez in juvenile detention, jail and state prison. At least a dozen state prison inmates have been brought to Pasco for the trial.

"We had to look for substitute evidence," said Halkitis, who has been known to tell juries that "when you're trying to convict the devil, sometimes you have to go to hell to get your witnesses."

Some inmates said in depositions that Ramirez, now 24, denied any involvement in the crime. Others say Ramirez admitted being there when Boroski was killed but identified Grimshaw as the triggerman. A few say Ramirez confessed to raping and shooting Boroski.

One inmate, James Poff, said Ramirez once told him: "I killed some b---- . . . But I'm going to get away with it due to a technicality."

This week's trial will bring the grisly details of one of the county's most brutal murders back into the public spotlight.

Boroski, a widow who lived alone in her Seven Springs home, was killed on the night of her 71st birthday. Grimshaw, then 18, lived across the street and knew there had been a birthday party at Boroski's house on March 10, 1995. Grimshaw and Ramirez, classmates at Gulf High School, decided to break in and steal gifts, according to previous trial testimony.

Once inside the darkened house, the teens were confronted by Boroski's constant companion, a miniature poodle named Chippy, according to records. The dog growled. The teens told detectives that they beat Chippy to death with a crowbar, apparently waking Boroski.

Prosecutors say the teens took turns raping Boroski, then tied her up with telephone cords. After looting the house, they put Boroski in the back of her car and drove her to a grassy field a half-mile from her house.

There, she was shot twice and left for dead. The next day, the teens played video games at an arcade using the $30 they stole from Boroski, according to records.

When confronted by detectives two months later, Grimshaw said Ramirez was the shooter. Ramirez was quick to confess to firing both shots.

The teens were tried separately a year later, convicted and sentenced to death. Grimshaw won a new sentencing hearing and received a life sentence.

The Florida Supreme Court's explosive ruling in the Ramirez case came in July 1999. The justices said Pasco sheriff's detectives had engaged in "cajoling" and "trickery" to obtain an illegal confession from Ramirez.

The court, in a 4-3 decision, chastised the Sheriff's Office for "blatant" violations of Ramirez's civil rights. In a separate opinion, Justice Harry Anstead accused detectives of questioning Ramirez "without even a wink at Miranda," a reference to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1966 that requires law enforcement officers to advise suspects of their constitutional right to remain silent.

Ramirez's conviction, and his confession, were thrown out.

While acknowledging that the high court's decision was a blow to the state's case, Halkitis, the prosecutor, said there is still enough evidence to convict Ramirez, who is charged with first-degree murder and faces the prospect of another death sentence.

"We wouldn't be pursuing it if we didn't feel we had the evidence," he said.

The evidence that's left is largely circumstantial and supplemental, and includes the following:

The taped conversation between Ramirez and Grimshaw, during which the two discuss details of the crime.

Testimony from a teen who said Ramirez gave him the murder weapon after Boroski was killed.

Testimony from a girl who said Ramirez gave her one of Boroski's rings after the killing.

And now, prosecutors have current and former inmates who say Ramirez confessed to the crime.

Julius Griffin once shared a cell with Ramirez at the county jail in Land O'Lakes. Griffin, who is no longer incarcerated, said in a recent deposition that he asked Ramirez if he was guilty.

"Somewhat, somewhat not," Ramirez replied, according to Griffin.

Griffin said he pressed Ramirez for details. Ramirez eventually confessed, Griffin said.

"Between me and you, I did it," Ramirez said, according to Griffin.

Ramirez's attorney, Keith Hammond, declined to comment for this story.

Several inmates who have been brought in from prisons around Florida for the trial can't understand why they're here.

They say they have no information to help prosecutors convict Ramirez.

"He never said nothing about a murder," Joshua Berryhill, who shared a cell with Ramirez at the Pasco Juvenile Detention Center after Boroski's murder, told the St. Petersburg Times last week. "He denied everything to me."

Halkitis said he doesn't know how many of the inmates, one of whom faces first-degree murder charges, will be called to testify.

Said Berryhill: "Why would they call all of us back here? We're not good witnesses. We're convicts. We get shot down on the stand. It doesn't look good for the prosecution to bring us here.

"It looks like a desperation move."

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