ANNAPOLIS, Md. (CN) — Almost three years to the day since he broke into the offices of the Capital Gazette’s Maryland newsroom and fatally shot five journalists, jury selection began Wednesday in Jarrod Ramos’ murder trial.
The main contention leading up to trial has been over whether psychiatrist Dr. Gregory Saathoff can testify about Ramos’ mental state without having interviewed the 41-year-old defendant. Judge Laura Ripken ruled in September that there was no state law or legal precedent that precluded Saathoff’s testimony.
Ramos has admitted to killing journalists Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters on June 28, 2018 at the Gazette offices in Annapolis, but he has invoked Maryland’s version of an insanity defense.
A psychiatrist and professor at the University of Virginia, Saathoff will testify at some point during the trial that he has determined Ramos is criminally responsible after viewing his jail cell and speaking with Anne Arundel County Detention Center personnel about his behavior.
If jurors disagree with Saathoff and find Ramos' mental state played a role in the attack, he will spend the rest of his life in maximum-security psychiatric hospital rather than a prison.
Matt Connell, one of Ramos’ three public defenders, has argued for a jury viewing of his client’s cell and living conditions, arguing jurors should have an equal opportunity to see the cell since Saathoff’s conclusions included those visual aids.
Ripken, however, denied the request and ruled in September that securing the facility during a pandemic would be impractical. The judge, who is married to famed Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., had twice denied requests by prosecutors to let Saathoff interview Ramos.
Dr. Sameer Patel, a Maryland Department of Health expert, has spent 20 hours with the shooter after he pleaded insanity in 2018. His views are taken into account in Saathoff’s opinion of Ramos’ criminal responsibility. Court records also show a defense expert referred to only as Dr. Lewis has previously interviewed the shooter.
The trial now has a new overseer, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Michael Wachs, who filled Ripken’s seat when she was appointed to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in January.
Ramos sued the paper for defamation in 2012 after it covered his criminal harassment conviction a year earlier and had publicly harassed staff at the Capital Gazette for years before killing the five staffers with a shotgun in 2018. He was found under a desk in the newsroom when apprehended by police.
The murder trial finally begins with jury selection Wednesday after being delayed by the Covid-19 crisis. Anne Arundel County Courthouse still has in place some pandemic restrictions, with limited seating available for media personnel. Capital Gazette journalists have a reserved spot in the courtroom alongside reporters for the Baltimore Sun, while other journalists are placed in a rotation for two reserved seats.
The judge has set aside three days for jury selection, and opening statements are scheduled for next Tuesday. The trial is expected to last about three weeks.
Rick Hutzell, the Capital Gazette editor for more than three decades who led the paper when the shooting occurred, left the paper over the weekend after accepting a buyout from the newspaper’s new parent company. The Capital Gazette was owned by Tribune Publishing until it was purchased by hedge fund Alden Global Capital last month.
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