Trial to decide Capital Gazette gunman’s sanity gets new date
Judge sets proceedings for Jarrod Ramos for March 4 after agreeing to delay
Anne Arundel County Judge Laura Ripken set a new date Thursday for the trial to determine whether the Capital Gazette shooter was sane at the time of the mass shooting.
Slated to begin March 4, the trial will determine whether the Laurel man convicted of murdering Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters is criminally responsible and will serve his time in state prison or be committed to a psychiatric hospital. It is expected to last 13 days, according to online court records.
The new trial date comes after attorneys for Jarrod Ramos asked Oct. 30 for a postponement, just as they were to begin selecting a jury to decide their client’s fate.
Circuit Court Judge Michael Wachs granted Ramos a delay, agreeing his attorneys needed time to review recently disclosed records, two days after the 39-year-old pleaded guilty to all the charges he faced: five counts of firstdegree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, six counts of firstdegree assault and 11 counts of using a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Ripken, who is presiding over Ramos’ trial, granted his request months ago to split the trial into two parts: one to determine whether he was guilty, and if so, a second to determine whether he meets Maryland’s legal standards for insanity. Ramos’ guilty plea nixed the first part of the trial — his culpability no longer in question.
Ramos blasted his way through the glass front doors of the Capital Gazette newsroom June 28, 2018, with a Mossberg shotgun, working the pump action on the long gun and moving about the newsroom as if he were hunting.
Eleven employees were present that day, he fatally shot five. Two escaped, while four others were trapped in the back of the Annapolis office because Ramos used a barricading device to block the door. Much of the deadly attack was captured on security video.
Legal experts described the guilty plea as a savvy move by Ramos’ attorneys, with a jury spared of the weeks of vivid testimony and graphic evidence associated with a weeks-long trial to determine whether he carried out the mass shooting.
A new jury will have to decide whether Ramos, because of a mental disease or disorder, could not understand that murdering five newspaper employees and leaving six others terrified for their lives was wrong or that he couldn’t stop himself from doing it. They’re expected to hear testimony from mental health experts hired by prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The trial to determine whether a defendant was legally insane is sometimes referred to by legal professionals as a “battle of the experts,” with each side employing mental health experts to support their stance and attorneys questioning the merits of the opposing expert’s claims.
Ramos attorneys hired a psychiatrist, who believes he is not criminally responsible for the deadly shooting. Prosecutors hired another psychiatrist, who believes Ramos was and is sane.
A forensic psychiatrist with the Maryland Department of Health, ordered by Ripken to evaluate Ramos and give a medical opinion about his sanity, wrote in a lengthy report that he believed Ramos is sane.
Whereas during a traditional criminal trial the burden is on prosecutors to prove the defendant is guilty of the charges, it’s the defendant’s burden to prove that he or she was insane at the time of the crime. The insanity defense is used sparingly in Maryland and is rarely successful.
As part of an unprecedented jury selection process for Anne Arundel County, more than 300 residents had been called as prospective jurors for what was slated to be a two-part trial lasting at least three weeks. Prospective jurors filled out a written questionnaire before they were to be questioned in person by Ripken and the attorneys, an unusual step.
Some 50 jurors waited all morning Oct. 30 in an adjacent courtroom as prosecutors and Ramos’ attorneys argued before Ripken about a pretrial evidence sharing process known as discovery. When Ripken ruled against Ramos’ attorneys, the team of public defenders representing him asked for a delay. When Wachs, who handles postponement matters, granted the delay, Ripken released the prospective jurors.
The pool of prospective jurors summoned for the trial slated to begin this week had completed their service, said Nadine Maeser, spokeswoman for the judiciary. As such, Ripken, the state prosecutors and defense attorneys will have to start anew.
The rescheduled trial will make for a busy month in the Anne Arundel courthouse, as two other murder trials are slated to immediately follow Ramos’ trial, which is scheduled through March 20.