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Witnesses from Anne Arundel jail appear in court as defense in Capital Gazette shooting case tries to oust prosecution psychiatrist

More than 20 employees from an Anne Arundel County jail appeared in court on Wednesday and Thursday as attorneys representing the gunman who killed five Capital Gazette staffers questioned them about their interviews with a psychiatrist hired by prosecutors.

A gamut of correctional officers, from corporals to wardens, and medical staff, from nurses to the jail psychiatrist and even the librarian testified at the first court hearing after several delays in the case against the man who gunned down Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters on June 28, 2018.

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Defense attorneys for 40-year-old Jarrod Ramos, of Laurel, argued that county prosecutors conspired with detention center employees to violate Ramos’ constitutional rights when arranging for Dr. Gregory Saathoff, whom prosecutors hired to dispute Ramos’ insanity defense, to visit the jail on Jennifer Road and interview 35 employees.

Judge Laura Ripken did not rule on the motion, and testimony will continue Tuesday.

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Public Defender Matthew Connell said that Saathoff’s jail visit and interviews breached Ramos’ expectation of privacy and his right to refuse interrogation and that there was an illegal search of his cell. He said prosecutors sent Saathoff to the jail to gather incriminating evidence against Ramos in the context of the sanity trial slated.

Ramos pleaded guilty to to the murder in October, but maintains that he was insane at the time of the mass shooting. A jury will decide in December whether he spends the rest of his life in prison or is committed indefinitely to a state psychiatric hospital.

Assistant State’s Attorney David Russell said Ramos didn’t have an expectation of privacy in jail, that Saathoff looking through his vacant cell window is not a search, that Ramos was never interrogated and that jail staffers weren’t forced to talk to Saathoff, but rather were given the option to speak with him about Ramos’ behavior behind bars.

“It’s a conspiracy theory,” Russell said. “It’s not based on any single fact.”

Saathoff is just one of a number of mental health professionals slated to testify at the second phase of trial, which some refer to as a “battle of the experts.” A forensic psychiatrist with the Maryland Department of Health is expected to testify that they believe Ramos was sane at the time of the attack in Annapolis, while a psychiatrist hired by the defense is expected to say she believes he was insane.

Saathoff is the only expert who hasn’t interviewed Ramos. Ripken twice denied prosecutors’ requests that he be allowed to do so. But prosecutors have said he conducted his own investigation by interviewing collateral sources and want him to be allowed to testify that he believes Ramos was sane.

Everyone in the courtroom — the attorneys, the judge and even Ramos — wore masks. At the bench, Ripken sat behind a plexiglass screen. The attorney tables and witness stand featured similar partitions. And only a handful of people were allowed into the largest courtroom in Anne Arundel County. The Maryland Judiciary mandated such measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Connell’s questions of employees focused on who arranged for them to meet with Saathoff and about the layout of the isolated “pod” Ramos inhabited for the better part of the last two years.

Few of the witnesses could recall specifics: A supervisor told them about a doctor hired by prosecutors wanting to do interviews and they obliged. Many remembered short meetings with Saathoff in a conference room in the jail’s administration area.

Some medical employees testified that they felt obligated, or like they “had to,” speak to Saathoff because their supervisors approached them about it. Correctional officers said their sergeants, equipped with a list of some of their names, brought up Saathoff’s visit and asked whether they’d be willing to speak to him. Still, specifics were vague.

“It was a sergeant, but you don’t remember which sergeant?” Connell asked one officer. For another, Connell probed about the list: “Where did the list come from? Who created this list?”

Ripken shot down some of Connell’s questions which she said were trying to elicit employee opinions about whether Ramos had an expectation of privacy under the law, a determination she said was for her to make; not a witness.

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“Were you forced to talk to Dr. Saathoff?” State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess asked the jail employees in cross-examination. None of the witnesses said they were coerced.

Both Connell and Leitess asked about the nature of guards’ interactions with Ramos. Connell and the defense are trying to prove that Ramos was subjected to some form of interrogation; Leitess has argued that correctional staffers were just going about their daily business.

“In your interactions with with [Ramos] did you ever try to elicit any statements from him about any crimes?” Leitess asked guards. They all said no.

Leitess asked about the layout of Ramos’ cell block to different effect.

Jail employees testified that Ramos was kept in a special, isolated unit that features only seven cells. Inside, detainees awaiting trial are under lockdown for 23 hours a day. They’re allowed out one at a time into a secluded catwalk with a telephone and a shower for one hour of recreation per day.

Michael Borgese, warden of the Jennifer Road jail, testified that despite being isolated, the area where Ramos lives is visible to passersby inside. Just outside the catwalk, which features large glass windows, he said, is a “main thoroughfare” of the jail. He testified that from the corridor, guards and other employees or members of the public allowed in for tours could see into the catwalk and into cells.

Some details previously confined to Saathoff’s report emerged in court. One nurse testified that Ramos swore at her. A correctional specialist said Ramos seemed to enjoy that his presence frightened her once when she approached his cell and didn’t expect to find him at the window.

Medical staff said Ramos rarely responded to their inquiries about his well-being. But guards generally testified that Ramos acted normally under their watch. They said he would ask when he needed things, follow their instructions and respond when they asked him things.

The defense is expected to call about five more witnesses Tuesday, after which the attorneys will argue. It’s unclear if prosecutors plan to call for anybody else to testify.

Ramos shook the close-knit community of Annapolis with the 2018 attack on the Capital Gazette newsroom, where he blasted his way into the office armed with a shotgun, smoke bombs and a device that blocked his victims from fleeing. Six other employees inside the newsroom survived either by fleeing or hiding from Ramos. Capital Gazette, which produces The Capital, the Maryland Gazette and the Bowie Blade-News, is owned by Baltimore Sun Media and Tribune Publishing Co.

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