TECUMSEH, Neb. — Can a jury, through the smoke and chaos of a prison riot, with inmates’ faces masked by towels, pick out who killed Michael Galindo?
That question — which one defense attorney compared to a game of “Where’s Waldo?” — is the key question confronting a jury during a trial that opened Monday focused on Galindo’s slaying during a March 2017 riot at the Tecumseh State Prison.
Eric Ramos, 27, is accused of first-degree murder in the death of Galindo, who was found in his cell after riot squads retook a housing unit from rampaging inmates at the state’s highest-security prison.
The trial, which continues Tuesday, was held under heavy guard by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies and is expected to take three weeks.
Prosecutors told jurors Monday that while video surveillance tape of the riot is grainy and sometimes distant, it will show that Ramos was one of four inmates who attacked and killed Galindo.
Just follow the “wet spots” on Ramos’ grey prison sweatshirt and the black stocking cap he wore, Corey O’Brien of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office told jurors.
“It makes the individual stand out, before and after Mr. Galindo was attacked,” O’Brien said.
But defense attorneys said that their client was misidentified and that without DNA or blood evidence linking their client to the slaying, Ramos should be found not guilty.
Johnson County Public Defender Tim Nelsen said that prison officials engaged in “reverse engineering” by concluding, without firm evidence, that Ramos was involved and then seeking, during an 18-month investigation, evidence that would back that up.
Ramos, Nelsen said, was about to be paroled, barely knew Galindo and had no motive to kill him. Two inmates, he said, will testify that Ramos was not involved.
“The fact is that Eric Ramos was a bystander,” Nelsen said.
Ramos, who became eligible for release on parole in 2017, was serving an eight- to 10-year prison sentence for domestic assault, possession of a firearm by a felon and related charges out of Gage County.
Nelsen added that some prison guards reported that some inmates had bloodstained clothes but that the clothing was not gathered or tested and that the prison’s surveillance manager was only 90 percent sure that Ramos was involved.
The “lion’s share” of the evidence will be hours of videotape that was taken by corrections officers as the riot unfolded, according to O’Brien.
The uprising began after a search of cells in Housing Unit 2A and 2B found 29 gallons of homemade alcohol, or “hooch.” A shoving match ensued, following by inmates wrapping towels around their face to conceal their identities, prison guards testified Monday.
The manager of the two housing units involved in the riot told jurors that he was told to abandon his post when the hostilities began. It took armed riot squads 3½ hours to regain control.
Galindo and another inmate, Damon Fitzgerald, were found dead. Two other inmates were killed in a riot three years ago at the Tecumseh prison in the same housing unit.
Galindo was stabbed more than 130 times but died of smoke inhalation after he retreated to his cell. Nelsen said that state investigators concluded that five to 15 inmates might have been involved.
Ramos is the only inmate who has been charged in the four riot-related slayings at Tecumseh, though prosecutors said they plan to charge others in Galindo’s death.
O’Brien told jurors Monday that it was a complicated case, because the use of water and a fire extinguisher to suppress a fire had obscured evidence and because some inmates had been uncooperative.
The trial began with a bizarre twist when it was revealed that, last week, an inmate leaving Tecumseh on parole had described what happened to Galindo to Galindo’s sister, in a chance meeting at a bus station.
Defense attorneys moved to delay the trial at least a week so they could re-interview the inmate and investigators who talked to him.
Defense attorney Jeff Gaertig said it was a matter of fairness to his client because the inmate’s story exonerated Ramos, though prosecutors said that wasn’t clearly the case.
Johnson County District Judge Vicky Johnson indicated that she might allow those interviews on Friday.
The courtroom Monday was nearly full, with members of Ramos’ family sitting on one side of the old-style courtroom in the historic Johnson County Courthhouse and Galindo’s family sitting on the other side. One sister of Galindo’s teared up as a photo of her deceased brother, covered in white foam from a fire extinguisher, was shown to jurors.