Parole board again denies freedom man convicted of manslaughter in pregnant girlfriend's death

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SPRINGFIELD, South Dakota — After listening to more than two hours of emotionally charged testimony, the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles again denied parole Tuesday for a man who has spent two decades behind bars in the 1994 killing of his pregnant girlfriend.

Joaquin Jack Ramos pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for the 1994 shooting of 27-year-old Debbie Martines in Rapid Valley. He initially was charged with murder, but a plea deal reduced the charge to manslaughter. The South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles denied his first bid for parole in November.

Ramos' family members and supporters argued that the 45-year-old man has served his time and is not the same man he was two decades ago, while Martines' family members said Ramos remains a danger to women and children.

Board member Dave Nelson, tasked with deciding whether to present Ramos' case to the full nine-member board or deny parole, said Martines' death was the culmination of threats of violence. He also told Ramos there is nothing accidental about domestic violence, which accelerates and gets worse.

"You basically lived up to your promise," Nelson said.

Donna Cassidy, one of Martines' sisters to testify during the hearing, said the family endured two years of abuse from Ramos. Cassidy said his problem has been how he treats women and children, and the prison environment has him only answering to men of authority, which she thinks can't help determine whether he's rehabilitated.

"He's not exposed to women and children," Cassidy said. "He's not exposed to the things that got him there in the first place."

But Ramos' uncle, Angelo Cruz of Spring Hill, Florida, said his nephew is sincere in his remorse and has been a model inmate.

"Nothing about his past is going to change," Cruz said after the hearing. "But everything about his future can, and will."

Former Gov. Mike Rounds in his final term commuted Ramos' sentence in 2010 from life to 150 years, making Ramos eligible for parole every eight months. But the recommendation was made without input from Martines' family members, and Rounds changed his mind.

State law prohibited the governor from reversing his clemency ruling, so he wrote a letter to the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles for Ramos's file, recommending parole be denied each time.

Nelson said Tuesday there's a chance Ramos could be paroled someday, "but not today."

"I can't say that 20 years is enough for committing the crime in front of these kids," Nelson said. "I don't think it's enough. And if somebody asks me how much is enough, I don't know."

Ramos' 28-year-old son, Christopher Lauricella, of Poughkeepsie, New York, reconnected with his father in the visitation room a couple of hours before the hearing. He said he grew up resenting Ramos as an absent father and didn't want to be anything like him, but the two have reconciled with weekly telephone calls.

"I believe he's a changed man, and every person walking this earth deserves a second chance," Lauricella said.

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