The prosecution of Joaquin Rams for the alleged drowning of his 15-month-old son Prince McLeod Rams last October in Manassas City continues to take odd turns in Prince William County. And more are likely to come.
Investigators are seeking to prove that Rams killed an ex-girlfriend 10 years ago, in addition to killing his son. They are subpoenaing witnesses to a special grand jury in the county courthouse in Manassas.
First, there can be nothing odder than the fact that Rams, indicted earlier this month for capital murder, now has no attorney. For the next month, a defendant facing the death penalty will have no representation. This could open him up to all sorts of shenanigans while he is unrepresented, and it’s partly Rams’s fault.
The capital murder charge came July 2 after a plain murder indictment was handed up in May. So a hearing was held last week to dismiss the first murder charge and get Rams a death penalty-qualified lawyer. His previous attorney, Timothy M. Olmstead, has not taken the required training to be appointed to a capital case. The capital public defender, Ed Ungvarsky, stepped up and said he was available.
Then Rams raised his hand. Prince William Circuit Court Judge Craig D. Johnston reluctantly recognized him, and Rams said, “I’d like to ask for Mark, uh, Petrofsky to represent me.” He then spelled out the name of Mark Petrovich, a local criminal defense lawyer who represented the teen sniper Lee Boyd Malvo in 2003. “I just want to feel comfortable with the representation,” Rams said, speaking calmly and clearly. “I just feel that they will serve my defense.”
Ungvarsky then said he wasn’t sure if he was available, if Rams “has a preference for another attorney.” He asked for a continuance to meet with Rams, and was given until Aug. 13. Why this had to take a month, Ungvarsky wouldn’t say afterward.
This was a minor bombshell, and created an unusual delay in getting the case off the ground with an all-new defense team. Prince William Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert told The Post’s Jeremy Borden that he thought that maybe defense lawyers were visiting Rams in jail, trying to be appointed to the case in hopes of getting money and exposure. I asked Petrovich how his name suddenly arose in Manassas.
“I can say that, despite Mr. Ebert’s inference to the contrary, I have not met Mr. Rams nor contacted him in any way,” Petrovich said. “But as I told attorneys who got in touch with me, since [law partner] Tom [Walsh] and I don’t have a pending capital case, we are willing to represent him.”
Roger Jestice, Rams’s friend, landlord and a key witness in the case — he was in the house and called 911 when Prince collapsed — said after the hearing that he was concerned that the capital public defender might seek a plea deal to save Rams from execution. He said the judge should “give these resources to someone who will defend him. Not just plea bargain. I’d rather he get the death penalty than plea bargain with these people. He’s innocent. We want his innocence proved.” Days earlier, his wife Sue Jestice gave a detailed interview also saying that Rams was innocent.
Next, we learned that the Manassas City police are continuing to serve search warrants in the case, even though Rams has been in jail since January. Part of this is related to their ongoing attempt to solve the 2003 homicide of Shawn Mason, Rams’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of Joaquin Rams Jr. And part of it put my name in the public record for the first time.
On May 1, I launched a story in four parts about the Rams case. On May 2, in part two, I pointed out that Rams had begun a blog before his arrest that declared his innocence in the death of his son, the death of Shawn Mason, and the 2008 death of his mother (officially, a suicide). That afternoon, Manassas City Detective Darwin Guyton obtained a search warrant saying he “has read this article. In it, reporter Tom Jackman references Ms. Mason’s death. Specifically, Jackman writes, in relevant part …”
And then he quoted my article, noting that Rams claimed to have video footage proving his innocence. In my nearly 30 years as a reporter, it’s the first time I ever made it into a search warrant. Thanks, Detective Guyton!
Guyton’s affidavit noted that they had searched Rams’s storage locker April 12, looking for financial records, but had not taken any video tapes. This time they did.
Then, on July 3, a day after the indictment was unsealed charging Rams with capital murder, Manassas City Detective Michelle Merritt served another warrant on Rams’s former residence, where he and his 13-year-old son Joaquin Jr. lived with Roger and Sue Jestice. It was the fourth search of the house. The detectives measured the temperature and flow of the water in the bathtub where Prince Rams was allegedly drowned, Sue Jestice said. One might think this would have happened some time ago, since the death occurred last October. A Prince William judge sealed the search warrant at the police request, Merritt told the Jestices, even though the target of the warrant has been in jail for nearly six months.
I asked Ebert why the police were still serving search warrants. He said, “the investigation starts with the charge.” I said I thought the investigation came first, then the charges. “A lot of people think that way,” Ebert said, “but the investigation starts with the charge.”
Merritt, the lead investigator in the Prince Rams case, testified recently that she has been a police officer for seven years, became a detective in December 2009, and that this is her second homicide investigation.
There have been two other hearings in the Rams case that were both fairly eye-opening. On April 17, Rams’s then-attorney, Olmstead, was seeking a tape of the 911 call in the case, which he said Prince William prosecutors had resisted providing. He also sought the statements made to police by Joaquin Rams Jr., which he believed were exculpatory, or supported his father’s claim of innocence.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Teresa Polinske said the 911 call wasn’t made by Rams but by Roger Jestice, though “you can hear him [Rams] in the background. You can hear the defendant make a statement, he was shouting and his [Prince’s] eyes rolled back in his head. I’ll turn it [the tape] over, but I don’t think it is exculpatory.”
The judge noted that it was a recorded statement made by the defendant, to which defense lawyers are legally entitled.
Then Polinske refused to turn over the teenage son’s two statements to police. Olmstead said a social worker had described one of the teen’s statements as “coached and lacked credibility” because they so favored his father. Polinske replied, “It is not exculpatory …My understanding from Detective Merritt is the statements are consistent and inculpatory, not exculpatory.”
The judge declined to order the prosecution to turn over the young witness’s statements, saying, “She knows what he’s charged with. She knows what her duty is.” Under Virginia law, prosecutors are not required to turn over incriminating reports before trial.
This is the same prosecutor’s office that failed to turn over witness statements in the death penalty case of Justin Wolfe, resulting in scathing opinions from two federal courts and an order that Wolfe be tried all over again. In late June, the prosecutors did turn over Joaquin Jr.’s statements to the defense. The contents are publicly unknown.
Also in June, the Prince William prosecutors convened a special grand jury to investigate Rams, both in the death of his son and in the death of Shawn Mason. Former Prince William police chief Charlie Deane, who retired last year after 42 years in the county, said Tuesday that he had never heard of another special grand jury in Prince William. Ebert would not confirm the existence of the special grand jury, even while he emerged from a locked courtroom with the Rams investigators and prosecutors behind him, and Joaquin Rams Jr. ahead of him. Grand jury proceedings are secret by law and prosecutors are not supposed to talk about them.
The teen son was one of many witnesses before the special grand jury, and his testimony has not been revealed, but the investigation is also trying to solve the murder of Joaquin Jr.’s mother, Shawn Mason, in 2003. Joaquin Jr. was 3 when his mother was killed, and collected a $1 million insurance payout, which has been put in a trust until he is 18. Joaquin Rams Sr. has long been a suspect in that case but was never charged.
Then, on June 27, Olmstead’s motion to interview Joaquin Rams Jr. in person was heard. The son was placed in the custody of Manassas City’s Department of Family Services after his father’s arrest, and a guardian ad litem, attorney Lori V. Battistoni, was appointed. Both opposed granting Olmstead access to Joaquin Jr. Battistoni noted that the teen already “has been subject to repeated questioning” (by police and prosecutors) causing him to be anxious, sad and confused. “It would not be in this Child’s best interests to be interviewed by defense counsel,” Battistoni wrote.
The hearing began, and according to Sue Jestice, Joaquin Jr. was left alone on a bench in the courthouse while his minders went into the courtroom. Defense lawyer Anne T. Godson saw him, spoke to him, then went into the courtroom herself. Godson confirmed this to me.
“Your Honor, I have talked with the young man just briefly,” Godson told Judge Johnston, suddenly interjecting herself into the hearing from her spectator’s seat in the jury box. “He did say that he does want to talk to Mr. Olmstead. He has no objection to that.”
This caused a brief uproar, with Battistoni and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Sandra Sylvester conferring, and raising the issue of whether a judge could order a child’s guardian to make him available to a defense lawyer. Johnston said he would need to have a separate hearing to decide this, and Sylvester demanded that Olmstead file a brief citing the legal authority for the judge to make such an order, though Ebert later said that the prosecutors “don’t have a dog in that fight” because prosecutors cannot control whether a witness speaks to the defense.
The hearing on whether Rams’s lawyers could interview Rams’s son was set for July 11. Instead, Rams left that hearing with no lawyer. And the case remains in official limbo with no trial date until the lawyer issue is settled, maybe, on Aug. 13.
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The birth of Prince
Part 3: The death of Prince
Part 4: The investigation