Cindi Rittenour sat by the water at a memorial garden for her sister and four Capital Gazette journalists while she waited for a jury’s verdict to decide whether the gunman who killed them was insane or not.
Minutes later, her phone rang. Deliberations had finished much earlier than expected.
Three years and 17 days after the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette, family members of the fallen, survivors of the attack and newspaper alumni rushed into an Anne Arundel County courtroom.
As the 12 jurors walked in, loved ones held hands and took deep breaths. Winters’ sister clutched a container of her ashes.
The clerk asked the foreperson for their verdict.
“We found him criminally responsible,” the man responded.
His words yielded a collective sigh of relief. Family members embraced. They cried.
The jury’s verdict that the man is sane and criminally responsible for murdering newsroom staff all but guarantees he will spend the rest of his days in prison. Prosecutors are seeking at least five life sentences without the possibility of parole.
“I feel liberated,” said Rittenour, the younger sister of Rebecca Smith. “Now, finally, we can let them rest easy knowing we got a favorable outcome.”
Outside the courtroom, the families applauded prosecutors for winning the verdict. A group formed around State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess and Assistant State’s Attorney David Russell. Leitess’ eyes welled up.
“Congratulations to our team,” exclaimed Dana Winters Rengers, Wendi Winters’ sister.
For three weeks, the family of survivors and victims have gathered at a private room in Stan and Joe’s Saloon restaurant before trial and during lunch catered by local restaurants. Together, they debriefed daily developments, processed painful testimony, and found solace in the privacy and on-site therapy dogs.
The group showed a united front at a press conference outside the courthouse. Dressed in bright red to represent a gun violence prevention organization and to celebrate Winters’ favorite color, they locked hands and wrapped arms around one another.
The mass shooting thrust survivors and victims’ families into a club that nobody wants to be a part of, said Asuman San Felice, the mother Selene San Felice, who survived the attack. But the relationships they’ve formed through the tragedy and trials have helped them heal.
“And that’s what we need to do now, we need to move on, forget about this court business and just heal,” San Felice said. “And I wish that for everybody.”
The first week of the trial included heart-wrenching testimony from the gunman’s sister, Michelle Jeans. Andrea Chamblee, the widow of John McNamara, encountered her outside of the courtroom and told her the families understood her pain.
“We’re all victims,” she said.
Jeans clutched her heart, as if to say thank you.
The rare insanity trial has been an exhaustive effort. The verdict is a burden off the shoulders of family who felt they owed it to their loved ones to stare down the man who stole their lives.
In the three years since the victims were killed in the Annapolis newsroom, their families laid them to rest, some sold their homes, and others left town. Years of delays, looming court dates and unexpected trial news triggered flashbacks for some of the victim’s families.
Since 2018, family members have switched work schedules, rescheduled school accommodations, saved vacation days or prepared to accept unpaid leave to finally sit through the 12-day trial. Some have watched their words for years, careful not to misstep online or say anything to the press about their loved one’s death that could risk a legal appeal.
With the trial now finished, survivors and family members expressed hope in finding closure.
Erica Fischman, who buried her husband with a constitutional booklet in his pocket, has spent three painful years waiting for justice. At trial, horrific details about her husband’s death were revealed. Afterward, she went to a park where she and her husband used to walk. She sat on his favorite bench until the park closed.
Fischman credits her daughter and the support from the other families for keeping her on her feet.
“Justice finally prevailed,” she said. “My husband’s soul now finally rests in peace.”
The city of Annapolis has also started to heal. The newsroom located on 888 Bestgate Road is now a coffee shop. Staff moved into a new office with bulletproof windows after the shooting. It’s since closed as newsrooms went virtual amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While the gunman’s legal proceedings near an end — his sentencing has yet to be scheduled, but the judge said it would be in about two months — the milestone of achieving a verdict can feel hallow compared to the immense loss.
“If there were justice, John and Rebecca and Rob and Gerald and Wendi would be here,” Chamblee said. “If there were justice maybe we could trade the defendant for our five people.
“So, it’s never really going to be justice.”
Baltimore Sun journalist Kevin Richardson contributed to this article.