The man who gunned down five Capital Gazette employees in 2018 was suffering from a mental disorder that yielded delusions he was being persecuted by the Annapolis newspaper and Maryland’s court system, a defense attorney said in opening statements.
Public Defender Katy O’Donnell’s statements about the man convicted of murdering Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters offered the first picture of their theory of the case.
She began the long-delayed trial in Anne Arundel Circuit Court by acknowledging the horrors of Jarrod Ramos’ crimes. She said he sat before the jury guilty of the “tragic and senseless murder of five individuals” but is not criminally responsible by reason of insanity.
“Thankfully,” she said, there were survivors, as Ramos had hoped to kill more people — he picked June 28, 2018, because he thought there would be an editorial board meeting between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. in the newsroom that Thursday.
O’Donnell said he plotted the attack for almost two years but asked the jury to look past all the awfulness.
“The emotional impact of this case is staggering — it’s staggering,” she said. “We’re going to ask you to focus on the law” as jurors bear witness “to a horrific event.”
The defense goes first under Maryland’s version of the insanity defense because the defendant bears the burden of proving he 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 that Ramos was insane.
Prosecutors reserved their opening statements for after the defense rests its case. They have long contended Ramos launched the attack for revenge, not because of mental illness.
The jury’s verdict will determine whether Ramos goes to prison or is committed indefinitely to a psychiatric hospital, where there’s the possibility of release if doctors and the courts deem the person is no longer a danger. If he’s found criminally responsible, Judge Michael Wachs will handle sentencing. Prosecutors are seeking at least five life sentences without the possibility of parole.
In her opening statement, O’Donnell explained Ramos led a depressing, isolated life: He lived like a recluse in a Laurel apartment for 15 years, became estranged from his parents and, eventually, his sister. She said he never had friends or a romantic relationship and only expressed having an emotional connection with his cat, Tiger.
Despite having the option to wear civilian clothes, Ramos appeared in court in a green jail jumpsuit. He was masked and bespectacled. His hair stretched past his shoulders and his beard was longer still.
When he first arrived, family members of the late employees stared him down.
Ramos became obsessed with the news organization after it wrote about a harassment case against him, O’Donnell said. He took issue with one sentence from a column by Eric Hartley: “His messages rambled, calling her ‘a bipolar drunkard leading a double life’ and saying ‘Expletive you, leave me alone’ though she hadn’t written to him in months.”
Ramos disputed the sentence’s accuracy and believed the coverage prevented him from having relationships and a normal life. After trying to rectify his frustrations through lawsuits rejected by judges, O’Donnell said, he retreated to his apartment and his cat. He harbored a grudge against the courts, too, for failing to administer what he considered justice.
Then, he planned the shooting and waited for his cat to die.
But none of his targets were present when he blasted into the Annapolis newsroom.
“Eric Hartley hadn’t worked for the Capital Gazette for six years,” O’Donnell said. “These individuals had moved on and out. It was Mr. Ramos who never moved on.”
When he stopped shooting, Ramos tweeted “F--- you, leave me alone,” from an office computer before calling 911. O’Donnell said Ramos became fixated on the phrase he felt was inaccurately reported.
Ramos’ inability to move on from the newspaper’s coverage stemmed from his mental illness, O’Donnell said. She said three different mental health professionals hired by the defense diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and delusional disorder, persecutory type. O’Donnell described the latter as significant because it resulted in him being “irrational and psychotic in his thinking.”
O’Donnell said the jury would hear competing testimony from psychiatrists and psychologists, but said even those hired by the prosecution had diagnosed him with mental illness. Among the diagnoses from other doctors were schizotypal personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. Personality disorders don’t usually meet the requirements of the insanity defense.
After O’Donnell’s opening statement, the defense called the lead detective in the case, Anne Arundel County police Det. Jason DiPietro, to the stand. Public Defender Elizabeth Palan walked him through his reports about the case. A crime scene technician and Officer Wesley Callow, of the Annapolis Police Department, also testified.
She played video of the shooting captured on newsroom cameras. The footage showed Ramos slide a barricade under the side door of the newsroom. It showed the beam of a flashlight mounted to his shotgun reach the front glass doors and the muzzle flash as he shot his way in. One victim was shown after being shot, others were seen on camera before they met the same fate. It also showed staffers trying to open the barricaded side door and others fleeing over an injured colleague.
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Palan also presented photos of the dead victims, some curled under their work stations. They also reviewed body camera footage from the first officers arriving at the scene.
As the video played, family members of some victims covered their eyes. Others clutched loved one’s hands or embraced. Some cried.
Though prosecutors didn’t give an opening statement, their theory of the case came through during their cross examination of witnesses.
State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess highlighted Ramos’ methodical preparation and execution the day of the mass shooting. She noted Ramos bought smoke canisters, barricades, a tactical shotgun equipped with laser sites and special shotgun shells, known as “dragon breath,” that would make the muzzle flash resemble a flamethrower.
The tape of Ramos’ 911 call from the newsroom was played for jurors. Having dialed from a newsroom phone, the call went to the Baltimore 911 operator because the Capital Gazette is owned by Baltimore Sun Media. Ramos told the confused operator he was the shooter and that he surrendered, before reciting the Annapolis address.
O’Donnell said in her opening statement that the defense’s evidence of Ramos’ insanity was strong and urged the jury to recognize that mental illness differs from person to person. Still, she acknowledged how difficult it is to make sense of her client’s crimes and that it was “chilling” that Ramos is not remorseful. In his mind, she said, committing the shooting was his only option.
“None of that makes sense to any of us,” O’Donnell said. “It makes sense to him.”