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Judge in Capital Gazette shooting case lays out trial protocols, sets deadline for COVID delay request

The judge presiding over the Capital Gazette murder case largely rejected legal arguments by the gunman’s lawyers Tuesday objecting to coronavirus precautions in courts statewide — and set a Friday deadline to ask for a delay on those grounds.

Circuit Judge Michael Wachs said the “complicated, lengthy trial of magnitude we haven’t seen” in Anne Arundel County would play out under the coronavirus mandates instituted by Maryland’s top judge: Plexiglas barriers, masks and clear face shields as well as limited public attendance.

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If it happens as scheduled over the summer.

During an afternoon hearing in Annapolis, Wachs said the arguments by the attorneys for the man who shot Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters to death on June 28, 2018, “used every word but postponement.” If they aren’t satisfied with his ruling and the coronavirus precautions, Wachs said 41-year-old Jarrod Ramos has until noon Friday to ask for another delay.

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That’s around the same time the court will send out approximately 300 court summons to potential jurors in the case, requiring them to come to the courthouse to fill out a questionnaire. That’s the first step in a jury selection process slated to be finalized over three days in June. As currently scheduled, opening statements in the trial will begin June 29 — three years and one day after the deadly attack on the Annapolis news organization, which is owned by Baltimore Sun Media.

Where the coronavirus-related orders by Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera offered some discretion, Wachs utilized it. For example, he’ll bring in 300 clear face shields so attorneys can see the faces of potential witnesses they’re questioning. Witnesses will be asked to use the disposable shields during their testimony, an option also available to the lawyers.

Wachs dismissed arguments from the defense lawyers and prosecutors to remove the Plexiglas barriers separating them at attorneys tables, which both sides argued complicated communicating among themselves. He said the precautionary measure was hardly cumbersome. He offered to explore bringing in something like a clear plastic booth on wheels so attorneys could make opening statements and closing arguments without masks.

The judge’s deliberation was in response to a motion by Ramos’ lawyers taking issue with a range of the precautions. Ramos objected to wearing a mask himself, and his attorneys asked for various participants in the trial to remove theirs at critical moments. Some of the measures hardly made sense considering all the attorneys have been vaccinated, Ramos lawyers argued. Others could further complicate a complex, three-week sanity trial, they argued.

“I just anticipate problems,” said Matthew Connell, one of Ramos’ public defenders. “It’s going to be a lengthy trial. I want unfettered ability to communicate with my client.”

Ramos pleaded guilty to the murders at The Capital, and 18 related offenses but maintains he was insane at the time. All that remains to be determined is whether he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison or is committed indefinitely to a state psychiatric facility. He wants a jury to decide.

“Mr. Ramos wants to go to trial,” Connell said, adding that the attorneys hadn’t intended their coronavirus-related requests to lead to another delay.

His attorneys said they were just trying to ensure the trial is conducted fairly. In addition to attorney positioning in the courtroom, Connell raised concerns about the phone line the courts have set up during the pandemic to allow the families of those who died, other victims, members of the public and the news media to listen to the case. He worried about infringements upon Ramos’ right to an open and public trial considering capacity restrictions in the courtroom.

“I’m worried this trial is going to be conducted in front of 10 reporters,” Connell said.

The case is set to take place in Anne Arundel County’s biggest courtroom, which has a capacity of more than 100 people in the audience. But because of social distancing measures, Wachs said only a handful of people other than the participants will be allowed to attend.

In the courtroom throughout the trial will be five attorneys — three public defenders, two prosecutors — and Ramos, as well as Wachs, courtroom staff and security, 12 jurors and six alternates, the latter of whom are excused once the attorneys finish closing arguments. The defense and prosecution are expected to call dozens of witnesses.

Assistant State’s Attorney David Russell asked Wachs not to forget about victims and expert witnesses, who are entitled to be in the courtroom.

Wachs said there will be room for a maximum of 20 spectators in the courtroom. He assured that there would be ample space at auxiliary locations equipped with closed-circuit video and audio feeds for others to watch and listen. Those spaces could be offices inside the courthouse vacated by county agencies by the summer.

“It will be an open courtroom. The public is welcome,” Wachs said. “It’s just because of COVID I have to limit the number.”

Wachs also reassured the defense attorneys about the jury selection process, despite stopping short of agreeing to ask jurors about their vaccination status, which the defense had requested.

The 300 prospective jurors will be brought in over three days in June. Wachs will ask groups of them yes or no questions in a spacious room that once housed the courthouse law library. The attorneys may be present in person; Ramos cannot because of “security concerns,” Wachs said. He will be watching from a courtroom upstairs, an option open to his attorneys and prosecutors.

After Wachs finishes with the simple questions and noting which jurors responded to them, the judge will call them into a public courtroom with the attorneys one at a time for follow-up questions about their responses. At this point, the jurors will wear the face shields so Ramos, his attorneys and prosecutors can see their facial expressions as they decide whether they want the person to sit on the jury panel.

Wachs said Anne Arundel County is well prepared to handle the trial, having conducted 26 jury trials with many of the same processes when the courts reopened for trials over a month in the fall.

“I believe we have a good system in place,” Wachs said.

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