At Newport News sentencing hearing, Ragin denies killing wife, stepchildren
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — At times tearful and at times combative, John Moses Ragin testified Tuesday that he had nothing to do with killing his wife and three stepchildren at the family's townhome nearly three years ago.
Ragin said his wife and kids "were still alive" at the family's home when he and his youngest son, 5-year-old I'Kaos, left for South Carolina on Aug. 18, 2011.
"I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't tell you that I did not kill my family and I'm innocent," Ragin told a courtroom packed with about 100 people.
His last memory of his son Rasheed, Ragin said through tears, is him standing at the doorway, upset that he couldn't go to South Carolina along with his stepfather and brother.
Ragin said he was kicking himself for "leaving home" on Aug. 18, 2011, rather than staying in Newport News.
"I was chasing skirts and trying to build a career as a rapper," he said, when he should have followed his father's advice to focus on raising his family.
Still, he insisted that he didn't kill his wife and three stepchildren.
Ragin took the stand at his sentencing hearing against the advice of his three-member team of lawyers. He had not previously testified in the case, either at a 2012 probable cause hearing or during the guilt or innocence phase of his trial.
"Now I feel like I should have testified," he told the jury.
Though Ragin acknowledged the jury had already found him guilty — asking for their "grace and mercy" in terms of punishment — he spent most of his roughly 45 minutes on the stand contending that he didn't commit the crimes.
"There's a lot of things that you were not allowed to look at and observe," he said, contending that he brought some of that evidence to his "attorneys' attention," but they often rebuffed him and didn't use it.
Last week, Ragin, 38, was found guilty of killing his wife and his three stepchildren, then pouring gasoline on their bodies and setting fire to the family's home in the Forrest Pines Apartments and Town Homes in Denbigh.
In all, he was convicted on three counts of capital murder, one count of second-degree murder, one count of arson and four stabbing charges in the deaths of Crystal Ragin, 32, an Army sergeant at Fort Eustis, as well as Sierra, 15; La'Kwan, 11; and Rasheed, 6.
The jury now is determining whether he should get the death penalty.
The day began when one of Ragin's lawyers, Lawrence H. Woodward Jr., told Circuit Judge Timothy S. Fisher that Ragin wanted to testify, even as the lawyers had strongly urged him not to.
When it came his turn to speak, Ragin told Fisher he also wanted all three of his attorneys off the case for "ineffective assistance of counsel," and asked to handle his own closing argument.
"I can speak for myself and handle my own close," Ragin said. "No one knows the facts of the case more than me."
But Fisher denied that request, saying the trial representation could not be split between Ragin and his attorneys, and told Ragin he had an excellent three-member legal team.
'I still loved my wife'
When Ragin took the witness stand, one of his lawyers, Stephen Givando, asked him to say what he wanted to say about the case, and Ragin faced the jury and spoke nonstop for about 15 minutes. "We had our ups and downs, but my wife still loved me, and I still loved my wife," he said.
Ragin was often combative on cross-examination, facing Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Valerie Spencer Muth. At times, he wouldn't answer a yes or no question. He would start out most of his responses with "Miss Muth."
Among other things, Ragin asserted that much of the DNA evidence found at the scene wasn't his blood, but DNA from other sources — such as saliva, sweat and skin — from his living in the home. A defense expert his lawyers never called to testify, Ragin asserted, could have backed him up.
Ragin also mentioned that he cut himself a few times while doing work around the house.
He also spoke of the police responding to a Shell station at Warwick Boulevard and Thorncliff Drive on Aug. 18, after a call from Crystal Ragin saying she had gotten a protective order against Ragin earlier that day that had not yet been served.
Ragin, who was at the gas station that day, initially told an officer he wasn't going back to the house, but was going to South Carolina. But he said Tuesday that changed when Crystal said she wasn't going back to the home.
"I most certainly did" go back to the house, Ragin said. "I went back to the house, and Crystal was not there," he said. "I came back downstairs, and then she got home."
Ragin denied that he and Crystal argued about whether he could take I'Kaos to South Carolina. The prosecution contends such an argument caused him to snap, kill his wife and then get rid of the other witnesses.
"Miss Muth, I never had to (ask for permission) to take my son down to South Carolina," he said, saying the trip was already planned. "We were married ... . She made suggestions, and I made suggestions."
He also insisted that an injury to his hand when he was arrested in South Carolina had been caused when his son accidentally slammed it into the car door, not caused by a knife while he was stabbing his family members 74 times, as the prosecution maintains.
Regarding a cellphone expert's testimony that he was reading online stories about a fire in Newport News hours before the bodies and fire were discovered in Newport News, Ragin said he was simply searching for "news in Newport News, Va.," and that a story about a fire came up.
Muth also asked Ragin to explain a 7-Eleven gas station surveillance video that the prosecution contends shows Ragin carrying a green laundry detergent bottle that was later found with gasoline at the townhome.
Ragin contends he wasn't carrying a detergent bottle, but a bag containing shoes he was trying to sell to someone at the 7-Eleven.
Muth also had Ragin read letters he wrote to a woman from jail in January 2012. In some of those letters, he expressed affection for the woman, though Ragin said he "didn't love her to the intensity level that you infer."
In his closing argument to the jury, Commonwealth's Attorney Howard Gwynn urged the jury to give Ragin the death penalty, talking in part about Ragin's just completed testimony.
"One thing you didn't see was remorse," Gwynn said. "No remorse for the deaths of four people ... . You saw his temper. You saw the person capable of killing four people without any remorse or hesitation."
Gwynn spoke of the victims in the case, how Sierra's smile could "light up a room," how La'Kwan looked out for his younger brother and how they "respected and loved each other," how La'Kwan was jump-rope champion at his school, and how these "good kids with bright futures are gone."
The prosecutor referred to the four caskets and four hearses at the funeral in South Carolina. "Think about one hearse rounding a corner, after another, after another, after another," Gwynn said.
He also talked about how Ragin had killed his best friend in South Carolina when he was 15 years old, and was paroled for that crime after serving 15 years behind bars.
"He had his second chance," Gwynn said. "Four people lost their lives because of the second chance. Don't give him a third chance."
In order to decide the case fairly and with justice, Gwynn told the jurors, they "must" impose the death penalty on John Ragin.
In his closing argument, Woodward urged the jury to spare Ragin's life, saying that more positives can come out of showing mercy — in the form of a life sentence — than in handing down the death penalty.
Woodward quoted Abraham Lincoln, who once said, "I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice," and asked jurors to grant Ragin some mercy and thereby create a richer fruit.
While the prosecution had talked about the case being among the "bloodiest days" in Newport News history, Woodward said the prosecution's "answer to this is more blood, John Ragin's blood."
Ragin is going to be punished — and die in prison — one way or the other, Woodward said.
"Is it going to be of natural causes or is a group of guards going to take him out of cell, strap him onto a gurney and end his life intentionally?"
Woodward asked the jury to think of I'Kaos, and to look ahead into the future to envision how his father's execution would deprive him of getting answers to the tragedy when he's trying to "come to grips with it" later in life.
"He's not going to want to know (what happened) from the trial transcripts," Woodward said. "He's going to want to look his father in the eye and hear him say what happened."
Ragin's parents and Crystal Ragin's siblings are all part of the same family, Woodward said. "I'Kaos Ragin makes this a family," he said.
Jurors deliberated for about an hour Tuesday and will resume deliberations at 10 a.m. Wednesday, deciding whether Ragin will be sentenced to life in prison or receive the death penalty.