Prison murder trial relies on security video to ID suspect

Nov. 30, 2023, 7 p.m. ·

Eric Ramos sits with defense attorney in District Court.
With an evidence photo displayed on a monitor, Eric Ramos, center, listens to testimony with his defense attorney. (Phone: Bill Kelly/Nebraska Public Media)

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For three weeks, jurors in a murder trial in Saline County District Court have been witnesses to a prison riot.

Surveillance footage captured during the 2017 uprising at the Tecumseh Correctional Facility plays a central role in determining whether inmate Eric Ramos took part in the murder of a fellow prisoner.

Bill Kelly with Nebraska Public Media has been in court for much of the trial. He spoke with Morning Edition host Dale Johnson about the case. A transcript of that conversation is below:

Eric Ramos leaves court after testimony in his trial.
Eric Ramos leaves court after testimony in his trial.

Dale Johnson: Bill, this is the second time a jury has heard portions of this homicide case. The first ended in a mistrial. Prosecutors claim Eric Ramos, an inmate at the Tecumseh facility, murdered another prisoner, Michael Galindo, during the prison riot. What have we learned in this trial that adds to our understanding of what happened that day?

Bill Kelly, reporter, Nebraska Public Media: Maybe it's what we still don't know that may prove most significant.

Ten to 15 people were involved in the first beating of Mr. Galindo during the riot. Only Eric Ramos was charged with murder. We still don't know why he, and he alone, was charged with this killing. At the very least, testimony indicates Ramos's Cell Mate, Eric Lozano, may have been involved as well. But No charges for Lazano.

It's also not yet entirely clear what the motive was for the collective beating and ultimate death of Mr. Galindo.

Johnson: In your opinion... What's been the most important evidence presented?

Kelly: The security footage. The jury has been shown footage from multiple cameras in different parts of the housing unit. All show the riot unfolding and the movements of both the victim and the accused during the same two-hour period.

The original attack on Mr. Galindo took place in the small prison exercise yard outside the housing unit where he lived. He was beaten and stabbed a second time inside one of the two cell block day rooms. In that sequence, Galindo lies motionless after the stabbing, surrounded by his blood. Suddenly, he gets up and almost runs out of the room, apparently Cell 2B-15, but it is off camera.

Then there's what we don't see.

When corrections officers regain control of the cell block, Galindo is found dead of smoke inhalation in a cell where burning towels and clothes had been stuffed through the door. There is no useful footage of the torching of the cell. Multiple people can be seen on other cameras running towards the cell with torches or burning cloth. Not just Ramos.

Johnson: And the surveillance videos. Are they damning for Mr. Ramos?

Kelly: So, let's rewind to before the fire. The jury sees footage of the man identified as Ramos in the exercise yard, mostly watching others beat Galindo. But it's not obvious that it's Ramos. Prosecutors attempt to match his clothing seen on other video feeds.

Later, the jury sees Galindo getting chased indoors by men identified by a prison officer as Ramos and his cellmate, Eric Lozano. They appear to be part of a group of four that repeatedly stab Galindo in the day room of the cellblock.

This was all being laid out by the lead investigator on this case for the Nebraska State Patrol, Neal Trantham. He told the jury the events may be happening in different areas, but the security footage has a time stamp, so when you string it together.

Nebraska State Patrol investigator Neal Trantham.
Nebraska State Patrol investigator Neal Trantham testifies in District Court. (Photo: Bill Kelly/Nebraska Public Media)

Trantham (from court testimony): After the initial assault happens, because of the way the cameras can be watched in sequence with one another, you can track that person, or persons, back to where they are going.

Footage also shows the man, identified as Ramos, carrying flaming materials from one section of the prison to another. He may also be the man who tears apart an ice machine and takes away a heavy compressor used to break the cell door window before the fire.

Johnson: In opening statements at the start of the trial, there were questions raised by the Ramos defense attorneys about the quality of that security footage. The jury saw it... You've seen some of it. How is the clarity?

Kelly: The quality of the video is an issue. These are all wide-angle views of each scene. The video resolution is low, so trying to blow up any one section is pretty worthless, making identifying individuals difficult without additional clues.

Another complication is that "suspect one," identified as Ramos by the prosecution, has different clothes and has his face covered in the footage. Trantham claims that videos taken from one of the guard towers answer that question.

Trantham (from court testimony): And we could watch that tower video where Suspect One was changing clothes and discarding clothing into the fire and so forth, so it strengthened our opinion in regards to the identification.

Kelly: That said, for an outsider like the jurors, the video alone does not clearly identify Ramos or his cellmate.

Johnson: How can the prosecution say with any certainty it is Ramos beating Galindo?

Kelly: So much of how much credibility the jury gives that identification depends on the testimony of a single Department of Corrections intelligence officer (named) Lt. Tatiana De Los Santos.

On the witness stand, she claims she was able to keep track of Ramos's movement on the security cameras throughout the riot. The defense attorneys have serious doubts about that, pointing out she seems to have been unable to identify very few of the other inmates involved in the assault.

Johnson: I was thinking about this, Bill. Prisons are foreign places to most people and probably include nearly all, if not all, the jury. This riot was deadly. Fires were set. Property destroyed. The video documents it all in real-time. So, describe the scene in the court as it's being watched.

Kelly: It is eerie because there's no audio with this. This was silent footage. So you're watching this in complete silence. Sometimes for two hours at a time with these long segments. Watching the jury, I saw them as very intent, even during the sections where nothing seemed to be happening. There were long sections where nothing happened. They were watching really, really closely.

Also, in the gallery, where I'm seated, on opposite sides of the courtroom, there are members of Eric Ramos's family on one side, and there are members of Michael Galindo's family on the other side. They have seen some of this footage before, but not all. It had to have been difficult for them to see this unfold in both cases.

Johnson: The prosecution has the strength of the video evidence. The defense will likely begin its case next week. What are some of the issues likely to be heard in court at that stage?

Kelly: The defense attorneys will likely be raising questions about the quality of the investigation done at a time. (Police and corrections officials) processed 94 inmates. They photographed and collected some evidence and the like, but in many cases, there (were) bloodstains on some of the clothing of these inmates. None of that was tested to see if it was Michael Galindo's blood.

In some cases, there was evidence even thrown away, but it was never sent to the State Patrol Crime Lab for processing or storage.

Another example was the compressor from the ice machine that Ramos may have taken out and tried to bust through a door. Not only was that never fingerprinted, it was thrown away. It was never processed as evidence.

So, the defense will likely spend a fair amount of time talking about the quality of the investigation.

Johnson: Anything else stands out for you, Bill?

Kelly: It was noted that Michael Galindo placed a phone call to his mother while the riot was underway. It was not played in court, but Investigator Trantham described what he heard.

Trantham (from court testimony): He indicated that there was smoke and fires of that nature, something of that nature, but it's very general what he had to say to his mother.

AG Corey O'Brian: To your recollection, did he express any concerns about his safety during the course of that phone call?

Trantham: He had a tone of reassurance, trying to tell his family that he was okay.

Kelly: And Dale, we are likely to hear witnesses from the defense, including from some inmates who witnessed the events next week.

Michael Galindos
Michael Galindos. (Photo: NDCS)