Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Michael Wachs will preside over the Capital Gazette murder trial, taking over for outgoing Judge Laura Ripken, who was appointed last week to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
Ripken chose Wachs to replace her on the case in one of her last orders of business as the administrative judge for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes courts in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard counties.
She was sworn into the state’s second-highest court Monday, according to the state judiciary.
Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera announced in a statement released by the judiciary Monday her picks to succeed Ripken in her administrative capacities. She named Circuit Judge Fred Hecker, administrative judge of Carroll County, to preside over the judicial circuit and tapped Circuit Judge Glenn Klavans as administrative judge for the Anne Arundel court.
Meanwhile, Wachs, a veteran jurist in Anne Arundel County, inherits perhaps the most notorious murder case in county history. It’s a case that has garnered national attention as the deadliest attack on an American newsroom.
Capital Gazette employees Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters were killed in the June 28, 2018 shooting. Six staffers present that day survived.
Jarrod Ramos, 41, pleaded guilty to the murders along with the 18 other crimes he was charged with. He maintains he was insane when he blasted into the Annapolis newsroom with a shotgun. It’s up to a jury to determine the merits of his claim. The trial on Ramos’ mental state at the time of the attack, will determine whether he spends the rest of his life in prison or is committed to a secure psychiatric facility.
The trial is scheduled for three weeks in late June and July, meaning it’ll overlap with the three-year anniversary of the attack.
In fact, the only outstanding motion in the case pertains to that date. Ramos’ team of defense attorneys from the Office of the Public Defender have asked for the trial to start, after three days of jury selection, on June 29 rather than June 28, so as not to conflict with a memorial service in Annapolis. The Guardians of the Free Press memorial on Newman Street is set to be dedicated that day.
“Defense Counsel DOES NOT wish to make victims and victims’ family members choose between attending the memorial service and attending Defendant’s trial,” Ramos’ attorneys wrote in a December pleading.
Prosecutors have not yet responded to the motion, but Wachs took note of the document.
Private attorneys who’ve observed the case raised concerns about Ramos’ trial going forward as scheduled.
Wachs said he could not comment on an open case, but judiciary spokeswoman Terri Charles said the case will go forward as currently scheduled.
“The case is scheduled to begin June 23, 2021, and it will begin as planned barring any unforeseen events such as additional restrictions due to COVID-19,” Charles wrote in an email.
Both the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Office of the Public Defender declined to comment.
Although Wachs represents another new face for Ramos’ case, his is a familiar one in the Anne Arundel legal community.
There have been changes on the team of defense attorneys after the lead Public Defender withdrew from the case for health concerns — he later died of cancer — and wholesale changes on the side of the prosecution, with an election ensuring that State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess would prosecute the case and assign new assistant state’s attorneys to it.
Wachs is the second longest-tenured judge on the county’s Circuit Court bench, having served in that capacity since 2007. He is also possibly the most experienced judge in the county, as he was for about seven years a District Court judge before rising to the county’s higher court. Wachs also serves as the coordinating judge for criminal cases in Circuit Court.
He handles many mental health cases and has experience with high profile matters. Recently, Wachs presided over the case of the man convicted of killing 22-year-old Tyrique Hudson. In a proceeding that frustrated some, Wachs found James Verombeck, who shot Hudson, was insane after prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed he was and committed him indefinitely to the Maryland Department of Health.
He’ll have to help a jury apply the same insanity standard, known in Maryland as criminal responsibility, in Ramos’ case. A person is only not criminally responsible if they, because of mental illness or disorder, could not understand their actions were illegal or could not stop themselves from committing them.
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However experienced, Wachs’ assignment to Ramos’ case represents something of a shift in the background of the judge presiding over it. Ripken was a career prosecutor before becoming a judge; Wachs was a career defense attorney before being appointed to the bench.
On the face of it, Klavans, the new administrative judge for the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, appears to split the difference between Ripken and Wachs, who worked closely together in constructing a plan for the Circuit Court’s operation during the coronavirus.
Klavans assumed his post on the bench in 2015, before which he was for a decade a prosecutor in Baltimore before going into private practice, according to the judiciary. He earned his law degree from the University of Baltimore in 1978.
He’ll have to lead the court forward through the challenges presented by the coronavirus, which has been responsible for the postponement of countless cases. The court could face a considerable backlog when jury trials resume at the earliest towards the end of April.
In a statement released by the judiciary, Klavans indicated he was up to the task.
“I am truly honored and grateful to Chief Judge Barbera for her trust, support, and confidence in me,” Klavans said. “I look forward to continuing to serve the people of Maryland in this new administrative role. I also am excited to be able to continue working with my colleagues in this new capacity on the bench.”