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In going through the meticulous details of the night Irving Ramirez murdered San Leandro police officer Nels Niemi, Alameda County DA Tom Orloff steered clear of emotion Monday during opening statements. In his slow, monotone voice, he recounted the murder: Niemi had responded to a domestic disturbance call that night in July 2005. He came upon Ramirez and his friends, who had been drinking cognac, and asked for IDs. The cop turned around, Ramirez shot Niemi in the back of the head and then fired six more times. Defense attorneys Michael Berger and Deborah Levy don’t question the DA’s assessment. They don’t doubt it was intentional. They are, however, attempting to persuade the jury that the killing was not premeditated � a marked difference between first- and second-degree murder that could spare Ramirez the death penalty. The first day of the long-awaited trial remained calm, except for a few sniffs from Ramirez’s family members when Orloff described the murder and presented illustrations of Niemi being shot six additional times as he lay on the ground. Several of Orloff’s star prosecutors, including Angela Backers and Darryl Stallworth, watched from the back of the courtroom.
‘It will not be con-tested that Officer Niemi was doing his job … that this killing was a tragic waste of a good man’s life.’

MICHAEL BERGER defense attorney

Only a handful of uniformed police officers attended Monday. In February, Levy had filed a motion to exclude uniformed police officers as spectators, arguing that their presence could prejudice the jury. Superior Court Judge Jon Rolefson, denied the motion. If the jury returns with a death verdict at the end of the trial, the prosecution’s victory would be a coup: According to The Recorder’s latest tally taken in June, Alameda County prosecutors have obtained death sentences in 17 out of 46 capital cases since 1995, for a success rate of 37 percent. In the Ramirez trial, however, Orloff will be up against less of a fight. “A good deal of this trial is not going to be contested,” Berger told the jury. “Officer Niemi was murdered. It’s not a who-done-it.” Berger continued: “It will not be contested that officer Niemi was doing his job … that this killing was a tragic waste of a good man’s life.” Yet Ramirez’s state of mind at the time he shot at Niemi did not fit the definition of premeditated first-degree murder, Berger argued. “Mr. Ramirez woke up that day thinking this is my birthday, let’s celebrate,” the defense lawyer said. Ramirez had been drinking heavily that night, Berger added. Orloff’s opening statements, however, hinted at his strategy in demonstrating that Ramirez knew what he was doing that night. According to Orloff, Ramirez’s friend who drove him away from the murder scene had asked him why he killed the police officer. Ramirez had answered, “I was gonna go down,” Orloff said. Ramirez also stopped by a Safeway store, stole some asthma inhalers and threw out the semi-automatic handgun and much of his clothing into a saltwater marsh. He later told his girlfriend that saltwater destroyed forensics, Orloff said.

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