When jury selection in the Capital Gazette shooting case begins Wednesday, attorneys and the judge will try to tease out biases about mental health, the insanity defense and even the media, experts say.
After all, Jarrod Ramos will stand before them bearded, masked and convicted of the all the crimes he was charged with. All that remains to be determined is whether the 41-year-old was suffering at the time of the attack from a mental disorder that prevented him from understanding what he did was illegal or being able to stop himself from carrying it out.
The panel’s decision about whether Ramos is criminally responsible for the mass shooting will determine whether he spends the rest of his life in prison or is committed indefinitely to a state psychiatric hospital. The latter offers the prospect of release — at some point.
People who think psychiatry is a hoax, and the insanity defense an excuse, shouldn’t make the cut, experts said.
“People have a lot of preconceived notions about mental illness and people have a lot of preconceived notions about the insanity defenses,” said Natalie Finegar, a defense attorney in Baltimore. “Some people see it as a loophole or they see it as a way out for people.”
Attorneys will look for different kinds of jurors for the panel in this case compared to criminal cases, in which jurors are asked to weigh evidence dispassionately and evaluate guilt or innocence, Finegar said.
“Here, you’re going to be looking for jurors that are going to be able to remain kind of emotionally grounded in the face of some very disturbing evidence that nobody is going to dispute took place,” she said.
Ramos pleaded guilty to everything. It’s possible jurors will see video of the shooting from security cameras in the newsroom and wrenching testimony from victims who survived the attack.
Despite his stated concerns about seating an impartial jury in light of extensive media coverage, Circuit Judge Michael Wachs said he was surprised so many prospective jurors indicated in response to a written questionnaire they knew little about the case.
That questionnaire was sent to 300 potential jurors. Wachs already excused a handful of prospects, citing a lack of understanding of English, prepaid vacations and a person who was friends with one of the late newspaper staffers. The rest of the jurors will be subject to further questioning in person.
Experts said the questionnaire, an extremely unusual step in a Maryland criminal trial, should serve as a useful resource to help attorneys to determine who they want to exclude. The defense can dismiss 20 jurors without providing a reason and prosecutors have the ability to strike 10 jurors. Neither side, however, can remove a juror based on sex, race or ethnicity, courts have ruled.
The jury selection is scheduled for three days with 50 jurors arriving in the morning for questioning and 50 more in the afternoon. Those whom Wachs believes can’t be impartial will be sent home.
Eventually they’ll wind up with 12 jurors and six alternates.
Defense attorney Peter O’Neill said red flags should be raised if any juror either knows so much about the case that they would have trouble putting their feelings aside, or if any juror in Anne Arundel County claims to know nothing about the June 28, 2018 attack.
“You almost have to live in a cave not to be aware of the case,” said O’Neill, who estimated that he’d read 40 to 50 stories about the case. “That’s a lot of articles that somebody just missed.”
Jury selection is like a chess game. Attorneys try to glean information about a person to gauge whether someone would be supportive of their case or if they should use one of their challenges to dismiss the juror.
“Every question is often a double-edged sword: I’m finding out who I don’t want, but I’m telling you who you do want,” said Chuck Bernstein, an experienced attorney who’s served as a public defender, prosecutor and Baltimore Circuit Judge.
Ramos’ defense attorneys likely will look for people who know “mental illness is a reality” and that it could potentially explain “horrific behavior,” said attorney Andrew Jezic, who was a prosecutor for eight years before going into private practice. Perhaps that person had a family member or friend who’s afflicted by a condition.
“You just need people that are sympathetic to the inherent failings of human nature,” Jezic said.
Lawyers for both sides will try to eliminate anyone who works in the mental health field, experts said, so that jurors can concentrate on the evidence presented. There are already three sets of psychiatrists and psychologists set to testify in the case.
Someone who works in the field might enter deliberations and say “’Hey, I do this for a living and here’s what that means and here’s what that is,’” Finegar said. “They could end up leading the jury.”
On the other side, experts said, prosecutors will hope for someone who’s rigid in their thinking, skeptical of the insanity defense. They’ll want to exclude anyone who they perceive as overly sympathetic to mental health issues or who believes the criminal justice system is biased.
Prosecutors also will have to battle the reflex that someone who commits mass murder has to be crazy. It’s not uncommon for that word to be used colloquially following yet another shooting in America.
“There’s some level of crazy with all of this — it has to be; it’s just nuts to do it,” said Mark Calzaretta, executive vice president of Magna Legal Services, which offers jury consulting. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re criminally insane.”
In this already unique case, another unusual element could factor into jury selection: A person’s perception of the press.
The mass shooting has been called an attack on the Fourth Estate and the First Amendment and an attempt to silence journalists doing their jobs. Prosecutors have said Ramos’ longstanding grudge against The Capital stemmed from his anger about the way it covered his conviction for harassing a woman.
Anyone with ties to the Capital Gazette, part of Baltimore Sun Media, is expected to be dismissed promptly, according to experts. But what about someone who felt slighted by a media outlet?
“If I’m a prosecutor here, then I want to know whether someone subscribes to the proposition that members of the press are enemies of the state,” said professor David Gray, of the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
O’Neill agreed, but was less concerned about that bias.
“I guess I have more faith in the human spirit that I would believe that even if somebody felt that the press was tainted in the sense that they were too liberal or conservative, that that has nothing to do with the taking of a human life,” he said.