Justices affirm convictions, LWOP sentence for man convicted in toddler’s death

An Anderson man convicted of torturing a toddler before killing her and seriously injuring the child’s brother has failed in his direct appeal of his convictions and life without parole sentence.

The case of Ryan Ramirez v. State of Indiana, 20S-LW-430, began in January 2018, when Kayla Hudson and Ryan Ramirez began dating. After two months, Hudson and her two toddlers, R.H. and P.H., moved in with Ramirez.

As the relationship progressed, babysitter Klarissa Manuel began to notice injuries on the children. And once Ramirez began caring for the children, Hudson observed that they were afraid of Ramirez and that their physical condition was deteriorating, including widespread bruising and black eyes.

On July 27, 2018, Ramirez took the kids to his parents’ home while Hudson was at work, then brought them with him when he picked her up around 11 p.m. P.H. appeared to be asleep in her car seat, and Ramirez carried her into their hotel.

Hudson brought R.H. inside and noticed that he had new bruising, as well as a black eye. She went to the store to purchase items to treat R.H., then returned to the hotel to treat her son and put him to bed, without checking on P.H.

Hudson did not check on P.H. until the next morning, when she found her daughter cold and stiff. When they weren’t able to revive P.H., Hudson wanted to go to the hospital, but Ramirez stopped her so they could get their “story straight.” Neither called 911.

The treating physician at the hospital was not able to save P.H., and an autopsy revealed the toddler suffered from a skull fracture, large scalp hemorrhage and bleeding due to brain trauma. Also, her body was covered in bruises, her liver was torn and nearly half of her blood was found in her abdominal cavity. The death was ruled a homicide.

R.H. was also taken to the hospital, where he was observed having “raccoon eyes,” indicating bruising to his eye sockets. He also had bleeding in his eye, bruising and a distended abdomen. The child was transferred to Riley Children’s Hospital, where physicians also found genital trauma, a broken arm and a broken rib.

Meanwhile, Anderson police conducted a search of Ramirez’s parents’ property. The search warranted allowed officers to photograph and videotape the property, but Anderson police also seized the recorder from a home security system. Officers obtained a second search warrant before reviewing the footage, which showed Ramirez in the driveway, striking the children.

Ramirez was soon charged with murder and neglect resulting in serious bodily injury. He challenged the seizure of the security recorder and the admission of the footage at trial, but both objections were overruled. Additionally, he was denied his request to introduce evidence of Hudson’s prior bad acts involving her children.

Ramirez also objected to a supplemental instruction issued in response to a jury question: whether “intentionally causing harm that leads to death” was the same as “intentionally kills.” The Madison Circuit Court sent the jury a supplemental instruction saying, “The State does not have to prove that a defendant specifically intended to kill another person for that defendant to be guilty of murder. It is enough for the State to show that a defendant knowingly inflicted an injury that resulted in the other person’s death, and at the time he inflicted that injury, the defendant was aware of a high probability that said injury could cause the death of the other person.”

About 15 minutes after receiving the instruction, the jury convicted Ramirez on both counts, then later recommended a sentence of life without parole. The Madison Circuit Court adopted the jury’s sentencing recommendation.

Ramirez then filed a direct appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case in May.  Though Ramirez challenged both his convictions and sentence, the high court affirmed in full in a Thursday opinion by Chief Justice Loretta Rush.

“Regarding admission of the surveillance system footage, we hold that seizing the recorder did not violate the federal or state constitutions,” Rush wrote for the unanimous court. “And we conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding evidence of Hudson’s prior bad acts involving her children, nor were Ramirez’s substantial rights affected.

“As to the supplemental jury instruction the trial court gave during deliberations, we emphasize that the decision to give a supplemental instruction should be made with great caution. But consistent with Indiana Code section 34-36-1-6, we no longer require an error or legal lacuna — a gap — for a trial court to supplement final instructions in response to a jury’s question on a point of law,” Rush continued. “Thus, the instruction’s flawed wording is not reversible error. And Ramirez waived any argument about how the instruction was given.

“Finally, we conclude that the statutory LWOP aggravators were sufficiently supported; the sentence did not violate Article 1, Section 16 of the Indiana Constitution; and revision Is not warranted under Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B).”

Specifically as to the admission of the surveillance footage, the high court concluded the exigent-circumstances exception justified the warrantless seizure of the recording device, and the seizure was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. What’s more, even if the trial court had abused its discretion, admitting the footage was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt “given the strength and quality of other, independent evidence of Ramirez’s guilt.”

As to the exclusion of evidence of Hudson’s prior bad acts — specifically, P.H.’s 2017 buckle fracture — the justices likewise found no abuse of discretion and held that any error would have been harmless. That’s because the standard in Garland v. State, 788 N.E.2d 450 (Ind. 2003), was not satisfied, and Ramirez failed to show “enough evidence of another appropriate purpose” under Rule 404(b).

Turning next to the supplemental instruction, Rush wrote that under I.C. 34-36-1-6 and the decision in Inman v. State, 4 N.E.3d 190 (Ind. 2014), trial courts no longer have to identify a legal lacuna in final instructions before responding to a jury’s question. The statute only requires that the jury “seek information concerning a legal issue before it.”

The court also found that Ramirez waived his challenge to the process for giving the supplemental instruction — sending it to the jury in writing rather than calling the jury back in and reading it. His challenge to the substance of the instruction also failed, with the court declining to reverse based on his arguments that the instruction used the word “could” instead of “would” in the definition of “knowingly” and failed to define “intentionally.”

And finally, “At oral argument, Ramirez argued that the issues with the supplemental jury instruction, together, produced ‘a synergistic effect that worked more substantial prejudice’ against his rights. We disagree.”

Turning last to Ramirez’s sentence, the justices found sufficient evidence to support that “torture” aggravating factor that led the jury to recommend life without parole. Even without that aggravator, the jury could have recommended life based on a murder-of-a-child aggravator, the court held.

Lastly, the justices found that the “severe” nature of Ramirez’s offense made his sentence proportionate, and the sentence did not warrant revision under Indiana Appellate Rule 7(B).

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