Murders trial opens

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Wednesday, May 30, 2001

HASTINGS, Minn. – Attorneys for three Mower County murder defendants don’t deny their clients took part in an Austin robbery leading to the deaths of two St. Paul roofers, but each say their client can’t be held accountable for the killings.

Vernon Neal Powers, 28, Scott Perry Christian, 30, and his brother, David Kenneth Christian, 28, all of St. Paul, have pleaded innocent to first- and second-degree murder in the June 30, 2000, shooting deaths of Juan Vincente Ramirez, 41, and Raul Pedro Guiterrez, 26, and wounding Benjamin Moreno Hernandez, 20, all of St. Paul.

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Powers has Crones disease, a chronic digestive disorder, and had been released from the hospital about three weeks before the robbery-killings at the Downtown Motel. He was drinking and taking medication the night of June 30, and doesn’t remember clearly what happened, his attorney, Chester Swenson, told the all-white, mostly younger jury during opening arguments in a Dakota County courtroom here Tuesday.

"Vernon Powers can’t be held to the same level of accountability as the others," Swenson said.

Scott Christian was not responsible for the deaths either, despite what forensic evidence indicates, his attorney, Rick Smith, said.

"The evidence will show that Scott did not kill anyone, did not intend to kill anyone, that he did not aid and abet the killing of anyone and did not commit any crime that led to the death of anyone," Smith said.


David Christian didn’t go into the hotel room, didn’t have a gun and had no idea about the robbery plan, his attorney, Barry Voss, said. Powers and Scott Christian hatched the plan and split the $170 taken from the roofers, he said.

"The police rushed to judgment," Voss said. "The evidence is guilt by association."

The three defendants are being tried separately during the single trial, and the jury will have to keep charges and defendants separate in their minds when reaching a verdict, Mower County Third District Court Judge Donald E. Rysavy said.

Rysavy urged the jury to listen critically to the witnesses: Do they have anything to gain by testifying, is their testimony reasonable, does the jury feel they are telling the truth?

"To the last, you rely on your own experience, your own judgment and your own common sense," Rysavy said.

After opening arguments, Powers filed a written motion asking for new representation. Swenson is incompetent, unprepared and told co-counsel Sara Jane Olson to lie to the defendant about her marriage to an assistant in the Mower County attorney’s office, Powers said.

"I have been misled and lied to by both my attorneys since day one," Powers said. "There’s no way I’m going to receive a fair trial."

The judge denied Powers’ request, ruling his counsel is competent and Powers knew about Olson’s relationship as early as July 2000. Powers has the constitutional right to representation, Rysavy said, but "not necessarily the exact counsel of (his) choosing."

Call Jennifer Hemmingsen at (507) 379-3438 or e-mail her at