By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) – The man who fatally shot five people with a shotgun at a Maryland newspaper last year will argue he was not criminally responsible for his actions because of a mental disorder at a trial that begins with jury selection on Wednesday.
Jarrod Ramos pleaded guilty on Monday to shooting five people at the Capital Gazette in one of the deadliest attacks on a U.S. media outlet. That reduced the scope of his trial, leaving the jury to assess only his claim that a mental illness means he should not spend the rest of his life in prison for his crime.
Ramos had a long-running feud with the daily newspaper when he walked into its Annapolis newsroom on June 28, 2018, and opened fire. Members of the staff who survived the attack by hiding under their desks covered the massacre and published a paper the next day, earning a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize board.
Prosecutors and Ramos’ public defender will begin the process on Wednesday of selecting the jury that will evaluate his claim at Anne Arundel Circuit Court. They are due to make their opening arguments and begin presenting their cases on Monday.
If the jury finds Ramos, 39, responsible for the 23 felony counts including five counts of first-degree murder to which he pleaded guilty, he will be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Under Maryland law, Ramos could be cleared of criminal liability if the jury decides he was suffering from a mental disorder that rendered him incapable of understanding the nature or consequences of his actions. Such a finding could lead to a reduced sentence spent in a mental-health institution.
At a pretrial hearing last week, Judge Laura Ripken said that mental health experts at the state health department had evaluated Ramos and found he was legally sane and criminally responsible, local media reported. Public defenders are expected to refute that report, but did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It is rare for a jury to be tasked with judging a defendant’s mental state to determine culpability, according to former Anne Arundel County prosecutor Andrew Jezic.
“Usually the doctors agree and when they don’t, there’s some compromise,” Jezic said in a phone interview. “Even if he was in fact legitimately crazy, it’s going to be hard to convince the jury to let him go into the care of a hospital instead of jail.”
The attack occurred two months before a California man threatened to kill employees at the Boston Globe in retaliation for its role coordinating an editorial response by hundreds of newspapers to U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media. That man, Robert Chain, was sentenced this month to serve four months in prison.
In the Gazette attack, Ramos killed the newspaper’s assistant editor, Rob Hiaasen, 59; journalists Wendi Winters, 65, Gerald Fischman, 61, and John McNamara, 56, and sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34.
Ramos had waged a long legal battle with the paper over a column it published about him, and his lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
Members of the Capital Gazette staff reacted defiantly to the violence. One reporter summed up their attitude on Twitter hours after the attack: “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.”
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)