After new prosecutors, a new defense attorney and multiple delays, the latest from the coronavirus pandemic, the Capital Gazette murder case is set for another change.
Circuit Judge Laura Ripken, who has for 2½ years presided calmly over the mass murder case, was appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the governor’s office announced Wednesday.
Ripken will leave the case in the hands of another judge, who has yet to be named, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary said.
It’s unclear exactly when Ripken’s appointment takes effect, though it will have to be approved by the Senate come January, and whether it will cause a postponement in the trial of the man convicted of murdering Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. That’s scheduled for three weeks beginning in late June and continuing through mid-July.
Ripken did not respond to a message left in her chambers.
Mike Ricci, a Hogan spokesman, said the governor’s office addressed the murder case in conversations with Ripken, who “assured us that her colleagues on the bench are ready to ensure that the case remains on an appropriate timeline.”
Attorney Peter O’Neill is skeptical about whether the trial will go on as scheduled not because of the complexity of the case but a nightmarish scheduling situation attributable to the coronavirus, which has postponed a litany of criminal and civil cases. Ripken cleared her schedule for weeks in June and July; another judge’s calendar may not be able to accommodate such a proceeding at that time, O’Neill said.
“It’s certainly doable, but I would say it’s highly unlikely,” O’Neill said.
Others were more optimistic, though none could say how Ripken’s position as administrative judge of the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Circuit Courts in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties, would impact the process of picking her replacement. It’s up to Judge Mary Ellen Barbera, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, to choose Ripken’s replacement as administrative judge for the circuit.
“This sounds like something the system should be able to handle without too much sweat. This happens,” said Charles Bernstein, a defense attorney and retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge.
Terri Charles, the judiciary spokeswoman, declined to answer more questions about the process.
Hogan chose Ripken over three other nominees sent to him by the Appellate Judicial Nominating Commission, which selected her and the three attorneys from a pool of nine applicants.
She will fill a seat left by Judge Timothy Elmer Meredith, who retired in September, on the Court of Special Appeals 5th Appellate Judicial Circuit, which covers Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties. The 15 judges on the state’s second-highest court listen in three-judge panels to arguments about decisions made in lower courts, not about facts of the case.
“The appointment of qualified individuals to serve across our state’s justice system is paramount to upholding our responsibilities to the people of Maryland and the rule of law,” Hogan said in a statement. “I have confidence that (Ripken) will continue to be a strong advocate for the law and will serve the citizens of the State of Maryland admirably.”
Ripken oversaw the plans to prepare the county courthouse in Annapolis for jury trials during the coronavirus, bringing in Plexiglas barriers and special headsets. Trials only went on for about a month before Barbera shut them down this fall amid a surging virus. But earlier in the pandemic, Ripken made sure the court heard a variety of cases, even if that meant having attorneys and judges appear over the telephone.
She was an Anne Arundel County assistant prosecutor for more than two decades, during which she rose up to the rank of deputy state’s attorney, before becoming a circuit judge in 2010. Ripken is also known for putting on the courthouse’s Annual Adoption Day celebration, which was often attended by her husband, former Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.
From the bench, Ripken provided a calming presence in the courtroom for the fiercely contentious mass shooting case. She diligently wrote notes and asked poignant questions that guided the attorneys through their arguments during dozens of motions hearings and the proceeding where 41-year-old Jarrod Ramos pleaded guilty to the murders and 18 other crimes.
All that remains to be determined is whether Ramos was sane or not at the time of the mass shooting and if he’ll spend the remainder of his life in a state prison or is committed indefinitely to a secure psychiatric facility.
The trial had already been postponed a number of times because of legal matters and unforeseen circumstances that infringed upon the case. It was also rescheduled once because of the pandemic back in April.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Public Defender said Ramos’ attorneys declined to comment. State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.
Private defense attorneys said Ripken’s qualities that likely appealed to Hogan will make for a smooth transition for whoever takes over for her as an administrative judge and on the Capital Gazette case.
It’s incumbent on Ripken’s replacement to read up on the legal pleadings, listen to the audiotapes and meet with the attorneys in the mass shooting case, said Attorney Jennifer Alexander, who was a county prosecutor with Ripken. Alexander acknowledged the judge was a “copious notetaker” and said there’s “no doubt that judicial file will be very organized, very well documented and very meticulous in how it’s turned over.”
Attorneys said her absence in the courthouse, albeit a testament to her tenacity, will reverberate beyond the confines of the notorious case.
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“It’s a big loss for our county,” O’Neill said. “Judge Ripken is a very very hardworking judge who’s contributed countless hours to the bench and she’s imminently qualified to preside over complex cases. It’s very difficult to replace someone as qualified as her.”