Crime

Did a crime show make him do it? A look back at the Ronny Zamora ‘TV intoxication’ murder

Ronnie Zamora during the 1977 murder trial.
Ronnie Zamora during the 1977 murder trial.

The TV made him do it.

That was the legal claim of 15-year-old Ronny Zamora of Miami Beach. He was accused of killing his 82-year-old neighbor.

During his trial, defense attorney Ellis Rubin claimed Zamora suffered from “television intoxication.”

Zamora was convicted and sentenced to life.

He was released om 2004 and deported to Costa Rica after serving 27 years.

Through the archives of the Miami Herald, here is a look at what has become known as the TV intoxication murder case.

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Ronny Zamora arrived June 2, 2004 at Juan Santamaria Airport, after regaining his freedom after purging 27 years at the Everglades Penitentiary in Miami, Florida. Zamora was convicted of the murder of Ellinor Haggart, June 4, 1977, in her home. MARIANO MATAMOROS AP File

RELEASED

Published June 2, 2004

Ronny Zamora, who claimed “television intoxication” caused him to kill his Miami Beach neighbor 27 years ago, walked out of prison Tuesday - directly into the arms of immigration officials ready to deport him.

Zamora will be returned to his native Costa Rica, where he has a job waiting and his brother’s wedding to attend later this month. Under his release agreement, granted in January by the Florida Parole Commission, he will be under supervision for the rest of his life.

“He has served his debt to this community for what he did,” said George Yoss, Zamora’s attorney for the past four years. “He has shown remorse for the longest time.”

Tuesday, he was in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who picked him up from Everglades Correctional Institution in West Miami-Dade about 1:40 p.m., officials said.

ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said she could not discuss the arrangements for Zamora’s return to Costa Rica for “safety and security reasons.” Under federal law, felons who are not U.S. citizens face deportation after completing their sentences.

“He does have a final order of removal, and we’re going to work diligently to remove him,” Gonzalez said. “We’re working with the Costa Rican Consulate to pursue the necessary paperwork.”

Now 42, Zamora was 15 when he and an accomplice shot 83-year-old Elinor Haggart and fled to Walt Disney World in Orlando with her money.

NOVEL DEFENSE

Zamora’s trial, the first to be televised nationwide, became an international sensation when his lawyer, Ellis Rubin, claimed that television violence on shows such as Kojak had driven the boy to kill Haggart as he robbed her home.

During the trial, Rubin tried to present experts who had studied the effects of television on children. The judge allowed neither the testimony nor the novel defense, and Zamora, who admitted the crime to police, was quickly convicted.

His accomplice, Darrell Agrella, struck a plea deal and was released from prison in 1986.

Rubin, who said Tuesday he was “very happy” about news of Zamora’s release, stood by his defense tactics.

“I would do it again and I would be more successful than I was then,” he said. “I’m happy for Ronny, but I regret that the defense was not allowed to be presented fully.”

Zamora became eligible for parole in 2001. Initially sentenced to life in prison, his release date was set for 2012 and then, last year, moved to June 2005.

The parole commission voted in January to shave one more year off his sentence, a decision greeted with tears of joy from Zamora’s family, but opposed by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

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Fifteen-year-old Ronny Zamora as he appeared at his murder trial in 1977. Miami Herald File

CALLED A ‘PUNK’

Prosecutors said Zamora should remain in prison because the victim’s family wanted him to serve his full sentence.

Miami-Dade County prosecutor Jay Novick read the parole commission a letter from Haggart’s granddaughter, Joan Norcross. In the letter, she called Zamora a “punk.”

Prosecutors also raised concerns about how well Zamora would be supervised on parole and the difficulties of enforcing U.S. parole restrictions in another country.

A parole examiner’s report recommended the sentence reduction because Zamora is well-behaved, has continued his education in prison, has strong family support and a job offer in Costa Rica.

TIES HELPED WITH JOB

Zamora will be employed as a messenger for a law firm, a job arranged for him by the Miami-based consul general of Costa Rica, Roxana Pacheco Arce. She is the niece of Costa Rica’s president, Abel Pacheco, whose ties to the Zamora case go back 27 years.

“He is a psychiatrist, and 27 years ago he came from Costa Rica to help in the case of Ronny Zamora,” the consul general said.

She said Costa Ricans believe Zamora “had to pay for what he did but we think it was too much. But he learned a lot and he is a new man.”

According to parole commission documents, Zamora’s parole plan calls for him to report to a parole officer in San Jose every month, submit to random drug and alcohol testing, complete an anger management course and assist the Costa Rican government in the development of a prison program to help inmates return to outside life, among other conditions.

Florida parole commissioners can alter the conditions or terminate supervision if they believe it is warranted, officials said.

Lee Colson, assistant warden of operations at Everglades Correctional, said Zamora has demonstrated “good behavior” during the past 10 years, with only three disciplinary reports in that time. He also worked as a tutor for other inmates and participated in a program to teach inmates life skills on the outside.

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‘JUNK SCIENCE’

Published Feb. 4, 2001

Ronny Zamora said the slick 1970s TV mayhem of Kojak drove him to kill his neighbor. Scott Falater said he was sleepwalking when he stabbed his wife 44 times. Edward Leary claimed a cocktail of Prozac and other medications made him firebomb two subway trains.

All of these men gambled on a novel defense when their cases came to trial. All of them are now in prison.

Some of the most prominent court cases of recent years have turned on “Twinkies.” That’s the name some lawyers invoke for far-fetched, untested legal defenses.

Like most long shots, novel defenses usually fail.

“It’s always a gamble,” said Ronald Guralnick, a Miami lawyer briefly involved in the Zamora case. “You have to argue the defense to the jury. They have common sense. So if you make a ridiculous defense, you’ve lost the jury.”

The junk-food moniker comes from the storied Twinkie defense of Dan White, the San Francisco city supervisor who killed fellow supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978. White said he suffered from temporary insanity rooted in low blood sugar: He had binged on sweets in the hours before the shooting. The jury bought it and convicted White of voluntary manslaughter rather than premeditated murder. He served 61 months in prison.

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A fresh Twinkie splashes across the headlines every year.

This year, it was Lionel Tate and the wrestling defense. Attorney Jim Lewis said the Pembroke Park child, 12 years old at the time, killed playmate Tiffany Eunick while imitating moves he had learned watching professional wrestling on television.

As in so many novelty trials, the news media swarmed around Lionel and broadcast the wrestling defense across the nation. And Lionel lost, his defense eviscerated. A boy whose attorney had declined a three-year sentence in juvenile detention as a plea bargain now faces life in prison.

Much of the legal community derides such defenses as junk science - arguments without foundation in research.

“Junk science is a defense attorney’s last resort,” said Christopher Slobogin, a University of Florida scholar who is considered an authority on psychiatry and the law.

Legal libraries are littered with junk science and other bits of defense-attorney novelty:

The TV intoxication defense: Ronny Zamora, a teenager tried for murder in 1977, said he had binged on violent TV programs before killing his 82-year-old neighbor. The defense was broadcast nationwide, appropriately enough, in the nation’s first televised trial. But the judge didn’t allow expert testimony on the link between television and violence.

Jurors sent Zamora to prison for life.

The sleepwalking defense: Scott Falater, 43, said he was sleepwalking when he stabbed his wife 44 times with his hunting knife, dragged her still-breathing body to the family pool, and held her head underwater until she drowned. Phoenix jurors convicted him in 1999 of premeditated murder and sent him to prison for life.

The nymphomania defense: Kathy Willets, the wife of a Broward County sheriff’s deputy, said a sex addiction led her to run a one-woman prostitution ring from her Tamarac home. Prozac, she said, might be to blame.

The Willetses copped pleas in 1991 and served brief sentences.

Five years later, Edward Leary said Prozac and a cocktail of other medications made him bomb a pair of New York subway trains.

He’s in prison for 94 years.

The “abuse excuse”: When Beverly Hills brothers Erik and Lyle Menendez detailed a lifetime of sexual abuse as a defense in the shotgun slayings of their millionaire parents in the mid-1990s, they drew convictions for first-degree murder.

Florida claims more than its fair share of Twinkies, and that is thanks to Ellis Rubin.

Rubin, a South Florida lawyer for 50 years, defended Zamora, Willets and a host of others who mounted novel defenses.

Rubin regards himself as an innovator and says his off-center defense strategies are born of necessity.

Sometimes they come off brilliantly.

Lisa Faye Keller was acquitted of murder in 1987 after bludgeoning her father to death outside his West Broward home. She said she had been his sex slave from age 13.

In the Keller case, Rubin was up against testimony from two Broward sheriff’s detectives that the unemployed poet had confessed to the premeditated murder of her abusive father.

Rubin won big with Keller, logging the first victory in a Florida court for a now-common defense, battered women syndrome.

In the 1986 case of Bobby Joe Long, Rubin concocted an unusual “pornography defense” for a man who had confessed to nine murders. He said Long’s life should be spared because of “prolonged, intense, subliminal pornographic dementia.”

A Pasco County judge dismissed the defense as “psychobabble,” and Long died in the electric chair.

Such are the risks in a last-ditch defense.

“Usually I get a case after a defendant has talked to the police and the prosecuting attorneys, and they have already made a confession,” Rubin said.

“Well, you have to come up with some kind of defense, not only to the crime but to the fact that he has made a confession.”

Rubin lost big with Long; with Willets, who fired him; and with Zamora, whose attorney argued on appeal that Rubin had provided ineffective counsel.

Guralnick was the lawyer who argued that appeal.

“If the lawyer doesn’t maintain his credibility with the jury, he loses,” Guralnick said.

“If they don’t believe one of the things you say, they won’t believe any of the things you say. I mean, you’re insulting their intelligence.”

Attorneys have mounted more novel legal strategies than scholars can count: Abortion-clinic mania. XYY chromosomal abnormality. Super Bowl Sunday syndrome. The PMS defense.

And what distinguishes the science from the junk science?

Experts say the most successful psychological defenses are based on an official diagnosis of the American Psychiatric Association and published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a common reference tome in the courts.

One example is post-traumatic stress syndrome, a widely accepted mental condition that lawyers have profitably linked to both military service and spousal abuse.

The attorney must also show “that this particular defendant at the time of this particular offense actually suffered from that type of disorder” in a way that affects the defendant’s guilt, said Paul Robinson, a Northwestern University law professor and an authority on psychology in criminal trials.

An attorney with a novel defense must persuade both judge and jury that the strategy isn’t mere psychobabble but a valid explanation for the crime.

Unequivocal successes are hard to find in the world of novelty litigation.

Even the original Twinkie defense was a hollow victory.

It sparked rioting across San Francisco.

And 21 months after his release from prison, White, the gunman, took his own life.

PUT ON THE DEFENSE

Published Dec. 3, 1989

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Attorney Ellis Rubin and his client, 15-year-old Ronnie Zamora stand to hear the guilty verdict delivered at Zamora’s murder trial in 1977. Miami Herald File / 1977

A dozen years ago, flamboyant Miami lawyer Ellis Rubin and psychiatrist Michael Gilbert came up with a unique defense for a 15-year-old accused of killing an elderly neighbor: TV violence made him do it.

The argument quickly won worldwide publicity -- the trial turned out to be one of Dade’s most sensational -- but jurors rejected the theory in one hour and 56 minutes of deliberations. The wavy-haired, TV-addicted Ronny Zamora is now locked behind bars for life.

Today, Rubin and Gilbert are on opposite sides of an argument, blaming each other for the defeat in a merry-go-round of accusations.

In his recently released book, Get Me Ellis Rubin!, the lawyer complains that Gilbert, his former star witness, flip- flopped on a key point, enough to “mortally” wound the case.

“He completely destroyed my television intoxication case,” Rubin, 64, said in a telephone interview while on a book tour in San Francisco.

Nonsense, says Gilbert, still in private practice in Miami. He even disavows the term “television intoxication.”

The psychiatrist says Rubin dug his own grave, not taking enough time to understand Gilbert’s sophisticated analysis of how constantly watching violent gunfights on television can create in children a conditioned reflex toward violence.

Rubin was too busy playing to dozens of reporters -- and watching his performance on TV -- to adequately defend the youngster, the doctor says.

The trial attracted more than 60 reporters from around the world. An edited version of the hearings was televised nightly -- attracting more Dade viewers than Johnny Carson.

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Ronny Zamora claps as a fellow inmate also accepts an award at the FIU Corrections Transition Program dinner at the Everglades Correctional Institute. The program helps inmates on life sentences to be successful if they get paroled. CHARLES TRAINOR JR Miami Herald File

After fuming silently for years, Gilbert went public with his version of the story last week, to point out what he called inaccuracies in Rubin’s memoirs, subtitled The Life, Times and Cases of a Maverick Lawyer.

“The kid was caught up in the crossfire of a prosecutor who wanted a conviction and Ellis, who sacrificed the kid,” the doctor adds.

He notes that Zamora’s co-defendant, Darrell Agrella, who was defended by another attorney in a less-publicized trial, served only seven years before being paroled four years ago. Agrella, who originally faced the same charges as Zamora, had been serving three concurrent life terms after pleading no contest to second-degree murder, robbery and burglary. By contrast, Zamora, who was convicted of first-degree murder, will have to serve a minimum of 25 years in prison before parole.

Gilbert says Rubin, in his book, made up quotes, got facts wrong and took credit for research the psychiatrist did.

Rubin denies he erred in his memoirs. He says he hates to “get bogged down” in rehashing the Zamora case. “It’s a small part of my purpose in life.”

He says he wrote the book with Dary Matera -- formerly of The Miami News and National Enquirer -- not only to talk about his famous cases, but also to publicize shortcomings in the court system and the plight of stutterers. Rubin himself once stuttered.

“Everything in the book is from my notes, from court transcripts, from depositions,” he says. “We had to satisfy the publisher that everything in the book is true.” The 291-page book was published by St. Martin’s Press. In it, Rubin devotes two chapters, about one-sixth of the narrative, to Zamora.

During his 38-year law career, Rubin has represented a number of famous clients: They have included Watergate burglars, store owner Prentice Rasheed (he was acquitted of setting a booby trap to electrocute a burglar), Arab oil Sheik Muhammed al-Fassi in a divorce case. But he acknowledges he has received more criticism about his handling of the Zamora trial than he has about any other case.

“Weaving a legal defense around any new and unusual psychological prognosis is a tremendous risk,” he writes in the book. “Attorneys who do subject themselves to professional ridicule, career-threatening public embarrassment, and almost certain charges from cannibalistic colleagues of ‘ineffective assistance of counsel.’ “

Although Zamora’s new attorneys have used the “ineffective assistance” claim in repeated appeals, no court has ever ruled Rubin failed his client. Still, a parade of prominent Dade lawyers blasted Rubin’s defense in testimony in a 1979 appeal hearing. Said Joel Hirschhorn: “I do not believe Mr. Rubin was concerned with his client. The trial was a disgrace.”

“Rubin persisted throughout the trial with his ‘nondefense’ although the judge already had ruled it an illegal defense,” said Edward O’Donnell.

Rubin had been recruited by Zamora’s family to represent the teenager in 1977, after Miami Beach police arrested Zamora on charges he shot to death his 82-year-old next-door neighbor, Elinor Haggart, when she caught the teen-ager and his friend, Agrella, robbing her home.

The boys found the widow’s loaded .32-caliber pistol in a closet -- and Zamora pulled the trigger. Haggart collapsed.

The two boys ran out of the house, stealing the victim’s car to take friends on a spree to Disney World.

Rubin hired Gilbert, who has testified in hundreds of trials in his 37-year career, to examine his teenage client.

The doctor learned Zamora grew up watching TV crime shows such as Kojak. His immigrant mother, who struggled to support her son born out of wedlock, used the TV as a baby-sitter while she worked. She even fed him in front of the tube. He learned about guns from television -- he had never held one until the day of the murder.

Gilbert decided the teenager had fired the gun out of a conditioned reflex after years of watching thousands of people respond to threats with violence on TV.

“If the gun hadn’t been loaded, there wouldn’t have been any murder,” Gilbert says.

“He had no awareness of what he was doing because it was a conditioned reflex, not a planned, purposeful act.”

He concluded Zamora did not know what he was doing in the two or three seconds he squeezed the trigger. He used the word “insane” at the trial.

In his book, Rubin says he was stunned by what he called “this new ‘three-second’ theory,” which first surfaced in a deposition. Rubin wanted to portray the illness as ongoing -- as he said Gilbert had originally diagnosed.

“The ‘three seconds of insanity’ defense might work with a husband coming home and finding his wife in bed with his best friend, but I felt it was ridiculous in this case,” Rubin says in his book.

Gilbert says he tried to explain his switch in diagnosis before the deposition-taking -- but accuses Rubin of being too busy to listen. Rubin was watching himself on TV and giving press conferences, Gilbert says.

The lawyer, on the other hand, says he walked Gilbert through a practice deposition the night before, and the doctor didn’t mention the new theory then.

Both agree they did not meet for about two months after the deposition-taking. And at the trial, other psychiatrists, testifying for the state, openly scoffed at the TV insanity theory.

Prosecutor Thomas Headley had a field day:

“I suggest that the testimony offered by Dr. Gilbert is something that if you were at a friend’s house, you would listen politely for a few minutes and then throw up your hands and say ‘Nonsense. Nonsense.’ “

“Which basically sums up the reaction of the jury,” Rubin writes in his book. “They were out two hours, an unusually short time for deliberations in a murder trial.”

Gilbert says Rubin blamed everyone but himself for the defeat. For example, Rubin complains in his book that a psychologist, barred from testifying for the defense because she had not talked to Zamora, robbed him of the chance to present crucial research to bolster his case.

Gilbert says he could have testified in the psychologist’s stead.

And, he adds, he originally suggested the TV violence theory to show the killing wasn’t first-degree murder. That could have opened an opportunity for plea-bargaining.

Prosecutor Headley, now in private practice, says he would have offered a second-degree murder charge in exchange for a copped plea -- the same offer Agrella took from the Dade state attorney’s office -- had Rubin shown interest. Rubin denies he passed up an opportunity to bargain.

Headley also says that although both Rubin and Gilbert are capable professionals, their ideas of TV violence “would not have been accepted regardless how the testimony went.

“It is something the average citizen could not and would not accept. You know, it’s too bizarre.”

In any case, Zamora, now 27, is an inmate at the Dade Correctional Institute, doing laundry as his required job. He has a high school equivalency degree. Prison officials say he is cooperative and causes no problems.

Zamora, reached at the institute, says he hadn’t seen the book. He says he couldn’t comment on Rubin or the trial -- just as he hasn’t for the last 12 years.

Rubin comments that he’s miffed that the Zamora case continues to overwhelm his other crusades -- his latest is warning Americans against the undermining of the legal system by the prevalence of perjury in the courtroom.

“Regardless of what I do the rest of my life, the headline of my obituary will probably read: ELLIS RUBIN, INVENTOR OF THE TELEVISION INTOXICATION DEFENSE.

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