The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

FEAR AND LOATHING IN PINELLAS PARK
You read about my jury duty stint, which ended yesterday. I teased at the sordid details. Now, you can read about Dawn Ruff, and her conviction of first-degree murder in the death of her husband, George "J.R." Ruff, in 2002 in Pinellas Park.

The newspaper story pretty well covers the case; there are lots of details that came out regarding witnesses, timeline, and extraneous information, but it's basically all there. In a nutshell: Dawn had become disenchanted with her marriage, and started an out-in-the-open relationship with Lucas Wawerczyk. It was so open that, after Wawerczyk got out of jail, she moved him into her house, which she was still sharing with J.R. and their two young boys. Two weeks after that, Wawerczyk ambushed J.R. in the house, stabbing him to death, and then eventually burying the body in the backyard. After J.R.'s prolonged disappearance, coupled with lingering suspicions, the police arrested Dawn and Wawerczyk, and started the process that led to Dawn Ruff's trial.

I sat on a jury of 12 (most Florida trials use only six jurors, but murder trials are the notable exception) to determine if Dawn had, indeed, actively caused J.R.'s murder, or if she was, if not completely innocent, only guilty to a far lesser degree. The ruling obviously shows which way the jury went.

What were some of the more interesting details in this case? Let me list some highlights. Bear in mind that a lot (not all) of this is stuff that I, and the other jurors, had to push aside for the purposes of making a final decision. That said, it was easy to notice, and stuck with me:

- The state could have gone for the death penalty in this case, but declined to do so, opting for life without parole instead. It was never explained why, but as we went through jury selection and the trial, I understood the strategy. The death penalty is an absolute, severe sentence. In a case like this, where the accused is not actually holding the murder weapon and committing the crime, but rather could be interpreted as being merely an accessory, knowledge that a guilty verdict would result in sure death is disquieting enough to sway jurors in their decision--it would, in effect, create its own reasonable doubt. So, opting for a seemingly less severe punishment would remove a potential impediment in clear deliberations (although life without parole is, really, as onerous, or even more so, depending on how you look at it).

- Especially toward the end, I got the feeling that this trial was a test drive for the state, meant to test much of the evidence and witnesses for the upcoming trial of Lucas Wawerczyk. In fact, I felt the state did this--proving Wawerczyk's guilt--to such a degree, that it came awfully close to not doing the job at hand, which was to focus on Dawn Ruff's role. (I could see that the defense also detected this, as evidenced by its actions in court.) It wasn't until the end of the trial when I felt confident enough to put the pieces together to determine her principal action.

- The culture shock between the lifestyles of the principals and primary witnesses in this case, and those of most of the jurors, was pretty clear-cut. It was a challenge for a lot of us to get into the heads of people who lived with many far-out things: A husband so ineffectual that he tolerated a live-in boyfriend, a circle of friends who didn't intervene, a general aversion to notifying police... a general existence of low expectations and despair. It's one thing to gawk at this sort of stuff through the media (especially the "Jerry Springer"-type of treatments); it's another to have it right in your face, stripped of irony, humor and whatever other filters you would apply to it to make it more digestible and detached.

- Despite the assumptions that might arise from the love-triangle situation, we're not talking about a lovers' quarrel between beautiful people. In the Tampa Bay area, the mere mention of "Pinellas Park" connotes the low-rent district, redneck country. So it was here. Dawn Ruff was not even remotely a femme fatale, J.R. and Lucas far from being macho studs. Simply put, these were people who'd known nothing but a hard life, didn't have the knowledge or resources to make a change, and behaved pretty much the way they'd been conditioned to: With apathy, passive-aggressiveness, simmering discontent and, ultimately, violence. Nothing even close to pretty about any of it.

- Dawn Ruff was in the Marines, and was discharged with a Section 8 (psychological) disability, from which she received 100 percent compensation from the military. According to one of the other jurors (who revealed this after we sent in our verdict), this meant she received about $2,300 per month.

- The husband-boyfriend situation was supplemented by an additional boyfriend: Heriberto "Harry" Pantoja, who's mentioned in the article and will also go on trial, was Dawn's other boyfriend. She had a relationship with him while Lucas was in jail (and still while living with J.R.). Based on the pattern to that point, I couldn't help but note that, once J.R. was out of the way (by whatever means, be that divorce, separation, death, etc.), she probably would have reverted back to a main man-boyfriend arrangement; and that at some point, she would tire of Lucas and attempt the whole thing all over again.

- J.R.'s place of work was a pet cemetery/crematorium. One of Dawn's plans for disposing her husband's body was to cremate it in this facility. That plan was never able to go forth, thus the burial in the backyard.

- Dawn's biggest downfall was her incessant talking, both before and after the murder. Prior to the crime, she would talk about her unhappy marital status (including her extramarital relationships) with anyone who would listen. She also openly talked about wanting to get J.R. out of her life, of "getting rid of him", and even of killing him and how to dispose of the body. After the crime, she tried to use this running-of-the-mouth as an alibi: She confided to one of the witnesses that, because she had mentioned that she was considering divorce, that proved she couldn't have been thinking of murdering J.R. It became apparent that she simply couldn't keep her mouth shut, and in her mind, just talking about something was enough to make it reality.

There's probably a lot more. But as was the case yesterday, I feel myself becoming incredibly drained by even recounting the trial. Many of the jurors confessed that they had a hard time sleeping at night during the trial, and especially so the night before we were to deliberate. (Note that this was so even though we weren't in a case where the death penalty was a possibility; imagine how much more stressful it would have been had that been a factor.) I didn't have that kind of trouble, at least not consciously; but as soon as the verdict was read, and I verbally said my "yes" in agreement to it, I felt the gravity of the situation all too well.

Do I believe we delivered the right decision? Yes. Did that make it any easier? Somewhat, but not completely.

Ultimately, justice was served. Provided the state does its job in the related trials to come, it will be served throughout. And believe me, the hardest job throughout will be that of the jury.