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The Baltimore Sun and the Capital Gazette are asking a judge to unseal voluminous court records that have been shielded from the public in the prosecution of a Laurel man who killed five employees of the Annapolis newspaper.

Nearly all the documents in the court case against Jarrod W. Ramos have been sealed, although there appears to be no order sealing the documents in public court files, according to the newspapers’ motions. Ramos pleaded guilty on Monday to the deaths of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters.

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The newspapers filed an emergency motion Monday for a hearing to get the documents unsealed, asking a judge to expedite their request.

“Generally the public has a right to know what courts are doing and what litigants are doing and so the presumption is that the court documents are open,” said Nathan Siegel, an attorney representing the papers.

The normal procedure is that all proceedings and documents are open to the public unless a party to the case files a motion to exclude them from public view, citing a valid exemption to open records laws. When that happens a hearing is usually held to determine whether specific documents can be sealed, according to Siegel.

The Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the motion, saying that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The public has a right to view and have access to records in criminal proceedings, argues David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, based in San Francisco. But that right is particularly important in a case involving a defendant who may go to prison for life.

“The overriding interest has been recognized time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court. The people have a right to monitor the way the criminal system works,” Snyder said.

The shooting gained national and global attention at at a time when the press was under attack.

“The case has immense importance in the journalism world,” said Snyder, a former journalist.

In this case, it is not clear why the documents are sealed. An unidentified party filed a motion on Aug. 22 to shield the records from public view.

No hearing has been scheduled yet on the motion. Jury selection is expected to begin Wednesday for the second part of the prosecution. Ramos will be tried on whether he should be held criminally responsible for the murders. Siegel said it is in the public interest to have the court hear the motion before the trial begins.

“It is would appear highly unlikely that a special and compelling reason exists that could support the wholesale sealing of all or much of the docket in this case,” the motion argues.

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