Three years and one day after the Capital Gazette shooting, the sanity trial for the gunman is slated to begin.
With a jury seated, defense attorneys and then prosecutors are expected to give opening statements Tuesday morning, previewing their respective positions on the case of the man who killed Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.
Jarrod Ramos, 41, already pleaded guilty to all his crimes. But his defense attorneys maintain he committed the murders because he was insane at the time.
They say he is not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of the insanity defense — because he was suffering from a mental disorder that prevented him from knowing his actions were illegal or prohibited him from stopping himself.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, contend Ramos launched the attack for revenge, not because of mental illness. He harbored a longstanding grudge against the paper for its coverage of his conviction for harassing a woman. He attempted to address his grievance via lawsuits against the newspaper and, when those failed, isolated himself and carefully plotted the attack, they say.
Experts say prosecutors and defense attorneys usually agree on the health department’s opinion and then a judge finds the defendant not criminally responsible. In Ramos’ case, a health department doctor believes Ramos is sane and his defense attorneys are going to trial based on the opinion of an experienced forensic psychiatrist they hired to evaluate his sanity. Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis believes Ramos was insane.
“When it’s pled, almost always both sides agree that they are either sane or insane,” said Dr. Jeffrey Janofsky, an experienced forensic psychiatrist based in Baltimore. “A contested insanity plea is like the rarest bird of all.”
At trial, the defense bears the burden of proving Ramos was not criminally responsible by a preponderance of the evidence standard. That means the jury will have to find that it’s more likely than not — a lower bar than guilt or innocence — that Ramos was insane.
The jury’s verdict will determine whether Ramos goes to prison or is committed indefinitely to a psychiatric hospital. Ramos would be sent to the state’s maximum security facility: Clifton T Perkins Hospital Center. While research shows that defendants found insane spend more time, on average, in the hospital than they would in prison, the former offers the possibility of release if doctors and the courts deem the person is no longer a danger.
If the jury finds Ramos criminally responsible, sentencing will be handled by Circuit Judge Michael Wachs. Prosecutors will seek at least five life sentences without the possibility of parole.
A jury was seated on Friday after two and a half days of jury selection, which revealed the challenges of finding fair jurors from a close-knit community which was rattled by the 2018 massacre.
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The jury panel consists of eight men and four women. There are also six alternates, two men and four women.
They will be tasked with listening to competing evidence about Ramos’ mental health. Sanity trials are sometimes referred to as a “battle of the experts,” and Ramos’ case seems slated not to be an exception.
Three sets of mental health experts are set to testify at the trial.
Ramos’ lawyers have Lewis and a psychologist she works with closely, Catherine Yeager, as well as a neurologist, Dr. Thomas Hyde.
Dr. Sameer Patel and psychologist Marshall Cowan, both of the health department, evaluated Ramos at the direction of Judge Laura Ripken after he pleaded insanity. With Patel finding Ramos sane, he will testify for the prosecution.
Prosecutors also hired Dr. Gregory Saathoff and psychologist Scott Bender to look into Ramos’ insanity claims. After Ripken twice rejected prosecutors’ requests to have Saathoff sit down with Ramos, Saathoff took his investigation to the county jail.
In addition to debate about Ramos’ mental health, Wachs has said video of the shooting captured on newsroom security cameras will be presented at trial, as will autopsy photos.