Prosecutors and defense lawyers are barred from mentioning the mental health of the man charged in the Capital Gazette mass shooting trial unless he is found guilty and the case moves on to the insanity defense stage, a judge ruled Friday.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Laura Ripken — who is presiding over the trial of the man charged with fatally shooting Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters — said the prosecution is still entitled to argue the defendant’s intention or knowledge of wrongdoing to prove premeditation.
If the defense believes the prosecution is “opening the door" to introduce mental health into the guilt-innocence phase, both parties may approach the bench and the judge will rule on it, Ripken said.
Friday’s ruling came in the case against Laurel resident Jarrod Ramos, 39, who is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and six counts of first-degree assault, among other charges. Ramos pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of the insanity defense — to all 23 counts.
Ripken also ruled both sets of attorneys will be allowed to make opening arguments before the first phase of the trial to Ramos’ guilt and again before the second phase to determine whether he meets Maryland’s narrow legal insanity definition.
If Ramos is found guilty, the criminal responsibility phase will follow immediately and again include opening arguments from both parties, but with the defense speaking first. The burden of proof during the criminal responsibility phase shifts to the defense. The defense must prove at the time the defendant committed the crime he could not understand the actions were illegal or conform those actions to the law because of a mental disorder or developmental disabilities.
Assistant State’s Attorney James Tuomey laid out the prosecution’s argument for separate opening statements.
Separating them, Tuomey said, will help avoid conflating the issue of guilt with that of criminal responsibility, and referenced case law stating that opening statements are meant to orient a jury to the evidence in the case as it applies to the law, not argue its merits.
Katy O’Donnell, one of Ramos’ attorneys, agreed that it was “best practice” to have two opening statements. O’Donnell said the defense should be able to explain the unique two-phased nature of the trial to the jury during its opening arguments.
The court would be responsible for explaining the split trial to the jury, Ripken said.
Ripken denied a motion by the defense to penalize prosecutors for what they say is a withholding of evidence during the pre-trial discovery period.
After arguments from both parties, Ripken decided that prosecutors had complied with the court order to supply the defense with information relevant to the case.
“I’m satisfied that the state has exercised its due diligence,” Ripken said.
Ripken also said she would not read the full mental health assessment completed by the state’s maximum-security psychiatric hospital. However, both parties are permitted to reference the report during motions hearings and arguments before the judge so long as they make it brief.
The attorneys and Ripken also broached the subject of what questions she will read aloud to prospective jurors at the next phase of the jury selection, which is scheduled to last three days, starting Oct. 30. Both parties have submitted lists of questions that they recommend she ask — many of which were similar or addressed common subjects, Ripken said. The judge suggested both parties review a sample questionnaire developed by the Maryland State Bar Association that could address “the majority but not all issues.”