This story has been updated to include a response from the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office on 9/20/2021.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Today the future of a man who admitted to killing his pregnant fiancé and her unborn child in Rapid City in 1994, went before members of the South Dakota parole board. Joaquin Ramos, who went by Jack, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of Debbie Martines. He was sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.
Since then, there have been several usual developments in this case, including a failure of the state’s victim notification system to do its job.
In 2010, then-Governor Mike Rounds commuted Ramos’ sentence to 150 years, making him eligible for parole.
However, Rounds has consistently told the parole board that he doesn’t support Ramos’ getting out of prison because he says the family of Debbie Martines was not able to voice their concerns before he granted commutation and if he had heard from them, it would have changed his decision.
KELOLAND Investigates asked Sen. Rounds for an interview on the subject and received the following statement:
“Unfortunately, the senator is unavailable. He is at Mayo Clinic with his wife, Jean through the end of the week. Additionally, given the significance of this hearing, we will once again testify in opposition and we’d prefer to withhold details for the board itself. Generally, Senator Rounds’ position on this issue will be reiterated during testimony tomorrow by his general counsel. We have continuously opposed granting parole since January 2011 – and will continue to do so.”Rob Skjonsberg, Sen. Mike Rounds Chief of Staff
That’s not the only time members of the victim’s family say they’ve been let down by the system that’s supposed to give them a voice in these matters.
KELOLAND Investigates covered Ramos’ emotionally-charged parole hearing and uncovers how the state’s victim notification system is failing to follow the law designed to protect victims and their families.
Joaquin “Jack” Ramos is no stranger to sitting before a board, pleading for his freedom, and telling them he is a changed man thanks to his Christian faith and anti-violence programs in the prison.
“I was messed up and I was so angry at myself. And so I dove into those classes because of that, because of Debbie’s death. I wanted to change. I don’t want to be the same person I was. That’s when I started helping other people,” Ramos said.
Ramos earned his bachelor’s degree while in prison and is currently working on a master’s in counseling. While 13 people, from those who ran prison programs to those he served time with, testified on his behalf, some of the most powerful and emotional testimony came from Debbie Martines’ family, who says her death was the cumulation of horrific acts.
“He can’t even tell you what he’s done. You can only sit here and say it’s an accident. Maybe her death was an accident, Jack, but everything leading up to that was not an accident. You knew what you were doing,” Dottie Bender, Debbie Martines’ sister said.
Pennington County State’s Attorney, Mark Vargo, the original prosecutor of Ramos’ case also spoke against parole.
“What he did was grab Debbie by the hair, pull her down, force her in submission and then strike her with a firearm,” Vargo said.
Martines’ children witnessed her death. Her daughter, who was eight at the time, spoke to the parole board via Zoom.
“The night my mother’s life was ended, I saw her take her last breath at that moment. And I don’t know for sure if you have changed. But I remember the person you were back in 1994. And that person terrifies me to know that he might get out.”Jackie Martines, Mother killed by Joaquin Ramos
While Martines’ family is committed to keeping Ramos behind bars, they may have missed their chance to testify at all due to a problem in the victim notification system.
The Statewide Automated Victim Information & Notification or SAVIN, was put into place in 2016.
Marsy’s Law also passed in 2016 as a constitutional amendment to expand the crime victim rights and prevent situations like Rounds’ commutation, without the victims’ family being informed.
Kennecke: But now Marsy’s Law is passed.
Donna Cassidy, Debbie’s sister: Yep.
Kennecke: You’re supposed to know.
Cassidy: You are supposed to know.
Kennecke: And do you?
Cassidy: No, unequivocally no. We have in at least four instances found out within days of a hearing or days of a proceeding without notification.
According to Marsy’s Law, victims have the “right to reasonable, accurate and timely notice of, and to be present at, all proceedings involving the criminal or delinquent conduct, including release.”
However, for this latest parole hearing, SAVIN only gave the Martines’ family 48 hours’ notice.
Cassidy: The system that was built for victims, it’s not working for victims.
Kennecke: It’s broken?
Cassidy: 100 percent.
When Cassidy questioned the SAVIN Program Coordinator about the issue via email, Deeandra Kinniburgh wrote back: “We believe there is an issue with the notifications on Joaquin Ramos being “timed out”. The tech company that developed and helps us maintain the software are working on it. It explains issues we have had with notifications not going out as they should.” Kinniburgh goes on to say, “We do not mean to cause any greater pain for your family at this stressful time.”
Kennecke: Is that enough?
Angela Hanson: No it’s not enough. To me, if you’re going to say your system is broken, fix it. And you should have fixed it the first time, not the fourth time.
Angela Hanson is Ramos’ ex-wife.
Hanson: He was horribly abusive and it was not just physical, it was mental abuse, it was sexual abuse. It was using firearms. I had a gun held to my head.
Kennecke: When Debbie died, did you think that could have been you?
Hanson: I still suffer from survivor’s guilt a lot. There’s no reason that it couldn’t have been me in the casket instead of Debbie. There’s no reason that it couldn’t have been. And then Debbie would be the one here, doing these hearings for me, instead of me doing them for her.
Hanson’s testimony before the parole board was raw and emotional. In the end, Ramos had the last word.
“There’s no amount of words I can say to apologize to the victim’s family. And the way I feel right now, I don’t even think they would accept it if I did. So what can I do? This is tough for me as well, it’s not just tough for them. This brings me back to what I’ve done.”Joaquin Jack Ramos said as his parole hearing concluded.
It wasn’t enough to convince the board he should be set free and the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles denied his request by a vote of eight to one.
Kennecke: Why do you feel your nephew should have been granted parole today?
Angelo Cruz, Ramos’ uncle: He is a dramatically changed individual. He is not the individual that they keep talking about. And as you noticed they went back to 1994. That’s all they know about him. They don’t know anything else.
Ramos can start the parole hearing process all over again in 8 months.
South Dakota is one of only a handful of states that allows a “life without parole” sentence for manslaughter.
When it comes to the SAVIN system, even a representative from Rounds’ office told the parole board today he’s not getting timely notifications on Ramos’ case either. We reached out to both SAVIN and the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office for a response to issues with the system, but have not received an answer.
The South Dakota Attorney General’s Office provided a response to KELOLAND Investigates on Monday, September 20th. Chief of Staff, Tim Bormann sent the following in an email:
Our office has reviewed the situation and consulted with the SAVIN staff. We believe this is a rare issue which has, unfortunately, been recurring due to the number of registrants interested in this particular case. Thanks to this situation we have been able to isolate the issue. It is currently being addressed on the technical side where the vendor has been notified and is working on a solution to the timeout issue that affected this particular notice. This was an instance of first impression, in that the system had not been confronted with this many registrants (over 10 family members) for one individual case prior, and without this matter, it is entirely possible that the timeout issue would have remained undiscovered.Tim Bormann, Chief of Staff, South Dakota Attorney General’s Office
Bormann also said he would let KELOLAND Investigates know when the issue is resolved.