Judge Won’t Restrain Psychiatrist’s Testimony of Gazette Shooter

Phil Davis and Rachael Pacella, reporters who survived last year’s shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper, talk to reporters outside Anne Arundel County Circuit Court in Annapolis after the gunman pleaded guilty to all 23 counts of an indictment in the case on Oct. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (CN) — A psychiatrist who has been unable to interview Maryland newsroom gunman Jarrod Ramos can still testify as to what he observed of the killer’s mental state, a Maryland judge ruled Friday.

Dr. Gregory Saathoff has not interacted with Ramos directly, but he did observe the 40-year-old through the window of his jail cell, and he interviewed 35 personnel from the Anne Arundel County Detention Center about him.

Judge Laura Ripken delivered her ruling this afternoon from the bench, following a two-day hearing on the matter earlier this month. She said no state law or legal precedent precludes Saathoff’s testimony.

A psychiatrist and professor at the University of Virginia, Saathoff will testify when Ramos goes to trial later this year, following jury selection slated to begin Nov. 6. Though Ramos has admitted to storming the Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, 2018 — killing journalists Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters — he has invoking Maryland’s version of an insanity defense. Ramos will face commitment to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of a prison if the jury agreed that he is not criminally responsible due to mental illness.

Ahead of trial, the defense has raised multiple issues pertaining to Saathoff, including his expected comparison of Ramos to hikers on the Appalachian Trail — which Ramos walked north to south in 2002 to avoid other hikers.

Ripken, who is married to famed Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., reserved judgment most of these challenges, saying she would need to hear more from state prosecutors about such testimony is relevant

There also was not enough information, Ripken said, to decide whether Saathoff can discuss Ramos’ use of a law library at the jail or Ramos’ meetings with his attorneys.

Ripken said short bench conferences could ensure relevancy issues were squared away before allowing testimony on specific observations.

Other data used to form Saathoff’s opinion, like a 2018 FBI report about the behavior of more than 60 mass shooters from 2003 to 2013, can be included in Saathoff’s testimony, Ripken said, but comparisons between Ramos’ behavior and other mass shooters was inadmissible. Ripken predicted that the comparisons to other shooters would likely prejudice Ramos’ defense, and she cautioned the state about using statistics from the FBI report.

As he did at the last hearing, public defenders Matt Connell briefly argued in support bringing the jury to view the detention center where Ramos is housed.

Since Saathoff is likely to testify about his interviews with jail personnel, Connell said a tour would go a long way toward refuting the relevancy of those conversations. He also called it paramount to view the jail to show that officers interacted with Ramos only minimally during his confinement.

Ripken sided with prosecutors here, however, calling the of the facility provided by the defense adequate. Though she said securing the facility during a pandemic for a tour by jurors and others would be “completely impractical,” Ripken also emphasized that diagrams of the facility would suffice even if the global health crisis was nonexistent.

Attorneys were separated by plexiglass dividers at their tables Friday, in an effort for the court to protect attendees from Covid-19. The distance between juror seats also had been measured to ensure they are 6 feet apart.

Ramos, found hiding under a desk at the newsroom after the 2018 shooting, had publicly harassed staff at the Capital Gazette for years. In 2012, Ramos sued the paper for defamation over its reporting of his criminal harassment conviction the prior year. When his suit was dismissed as groundless, Ramos used Twitter to rail against the newspaper staff in obscenity-ridden posts.

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