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Ventura County

Father, Judge Not Swayed by Killer's Pleas

Court: Roland 'Ram' Gonzales tearfully asks the parents of his victim to forgive him, and claims his trial was unfair. He is sentenced to 16 years to life.

January 26, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before he was sentenced to state prison for murdering his ex-wife's boyfriend, 43-year-old Thousand Oaks resident Roland "Ram" Gonzales asked permission from the court to say a few words.

Turning to face his victim's parents, Gonzales told them he never meant to kill their son, 34-year-old David Smith. Then he complained that he didn't get a fair trial.

Finally, he wept and begged for forgiveness.

"What really hurts is that I know how much you miss him," Gonzales said Friday, sobbing during his sentencing hearing in Ventura County Superior Court.

"I never wanted this to happen," he said. "I just wish you could forgive me in some way."

But the tearful plea came too late for Thousand Oaks resident Daryl Smith, the victim's father, who gripped his cane and stared icily at Gonzales across the courtroom.

And it did nothing to soften the resolve of Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr., who ordered Gonzales to serve 16 years to life in prison for sticking a 3 1/2-inch knife blade into David Smith during a domestic dispute more than two years ago.

After the hearing, Gonzales requested a brief visit with his parents, who were in the courtroom, but he was denied.

It was all too much for Daryl Smith to stomach.

"His parents can go visit him in prison," the father said angrily, standing outside the courtroom. "All I can remember are the autopsy photos."

David Smith died in November 1999 after a confrontation with Gonzales on the front steps of his girlfriend's Thousand Oaks home. The three adults had a history of ill will and tension. Court records reveal more than one restraining order.

The bad feelings boiled over that Sunday evening when Gonzales came to return his two young sons to their mother and found out about a domestic disturbance between his ex-wife and Smith.

At trial, Gonzales testified that he had grabbed a knife in self-defense before walking from his vehicle to the front door. He told jurors that Smith accidentally fell on the blade while trying to punch him.

Defense attorney Richard Hanawalt portrayed Smith as a drunken aggressor and described his client as a nonviolent "cream puff." Hanawalt argued that Gonzales should be convicted of nothing more serious than manslaughter.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Aramesh told jurors that it was a first-degree murder case because Gonzales announced moments before the stabbing that he intended to "stick" Smith.

After the stabbing, she told the jury, Gonzales grabbed his sons and drove away. Deputies later arrested him at a Westlake Village hotel, and authorities found the knife in a trash can.

After several days of deliberation in November, the jury returned with a verdict of second-degree murder.

During Friday's sentencing hearing, Hanawalt argued unsuccessfully for a new trial.

He said the jury's verdict was tainted by a "runaway" foreman who exerted too much influence and who pushed for a murder conviction after using a cardboard cracker box as a stand-in for the victim in the deliberation room.

The judge found there was no coercion, however, and disagreed with Hanawalt's version of the deliberations based on written declarations from several jurors.

Holding up the knife with a gloved hand, O'Neill said, "I find it to be obviously and clearly a lethal weapon."

Later in the hearing, Smith's parents and his former wife, Stella Violano, described Smith as a gentle man whose character wrongly came under attack during the trial.

Violano told the judge that her 9-year-old daughter will grow up without her father because of the defendant's actions.

Her words were echoed by Smith's mother, Susan.

"What happened to David shouldn't have happened," she said through tears. "We are all serving a life sentence for what Ram did."

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