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A lesson and a legacy in the Capital Gazette tragedy | COMMENTARY

The Guardians of the First Amendment Memorial, with its inscription of The First Amendment, and five columns representing the Capital Gazette journalists killed three years ago, was dedicated Monday. The pillars honor Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara and Rebecca Smith.
The Guardians of the First Amendment Memorial, with its inscription of The First Amendment, and five columns representing the Capital Gazette journalists killed three years ago, was dedicated Monday. The pillars honor Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman and John McNamara and Rebecca Smith. (Ulysses Muñoz)

With the finding Thursday by an Annapolis jury that the Capital Gazette gunman was indeed criminally responsible for the brutal, calculated murders three years ago of five employees at the newspaper — friends and colleagues to those of us here at The Sun — the legal chapter of this horror story largely comes to a close.

The shooter, whose only expressed regret was not killing more people, will most certainly be consigned to spend the rest of his life in prison at his sentencing, still to come. There is no longer any possibility that he will be sent to a psychiatric hospital, as he and his lawyers had been angling for, peddling a thin defense that he had a mental disorder that prevented him from understanding the consequences of his actions. The jury members clearly saw through that effort, determining after a brief deliberation that he not only understood the criminality of his actions, but was capable of acting lawfully — when he wanted to.

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How could they not? The gunman fantasized about the June 28, 2018, attack at the Annapolis news office for five years as he went about his day-to-day life, and he actively plotted it for at least two. He put together multiple backup plans, studied patterns of police responses to mass shootings and tailored his actions to ensure he would get out alive. Once inside on that fateful day, he coldly began firing and would later express delight to a state psychiatrist at discovering a survivor, whom he then executed at point blank range.

“He was proud of what he’d had done,” the doctor testified during the three-week trial to determine the gunman’s mental capacity, a painful, but important process within the justice system. Society has long recognized that prison is no solution to mental illness, and that there is nothing to be gained by imprisoning those who are truly unable to judge right from wrong, no matter how heinous their actions.

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That was not the case for this gunman, however, which was obvious to many from the start. The friends and families of his five victims never should have been subject to this fiction, for while the shooter was clearly troubled, nothing in his person excuses him from culpability here.

We commend our colleagues at The Sun, the Capital Gazette and other media outlets who day in and day out watched the proceedings, subjecting themselves to every painful detail to ensure the public received a full accounting of the process, and our hearts go out to the survivors who relived their terror on the witness stand in support of justice.

Of course, the idea that justice has been served is another fiction. The sanity of the shooter won’t bring back his victims: editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, a married father of three who is forever frozen at 59; editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, who had a “wicked pen” and wry wit, 61; sports writer John “Mac” McNamara, whose one-liners were legendary, 56; sales assistant Rebecca Smith, who was engaged to be married, 34; and community correspondent Wendi Winters, whose three weekly columns brought neighbors closer together, 65.

And it won’t lessen the pain their parents, spouses, children, friends and colleagues feel at their loss. There is no sense to be found in these deaths, carried out as revenge by a man who felt he had been wronged because the newspaper wrote about a campaign of harassment he once waged against a former high school classmate.

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We won’t use his name here. He wanted to be famous, notorious, and we won’t help further his cause. He is relegated to a lesson, not a legacy — a lesson on the continued need for advocacy regarding common sense gun laws and easy access to mental health interventions.

The legacy belongs to Rob, Gerald, Mac, Rebecca and Wendi. Last month, on the anniversary of their deaths — declared “Freedom of the Press Day” in Maryland — they were memorialized in five granite pillars collectively known as “The Guardians of the First Amendment.” Their deaths have served to strengthen the resolve of journalists around the nation who understand that the work they do is often dangerous, but vital to our country. In the names of these five, we will continue to search for truth, expose misdeeds and bring light to all.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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