A Maryland judge carefully focused on asking potential jurors Wednesday whether they believed they could be fair and impartial in weighing the plea of guilty but not criminally responsible by a man who killed five people at the Capital Gazette newspaper nearly three years ago.
Judge Michael Wachs said his goal was to have a jury empaneled on Friday in the high-profile case that traumatized the community in Maryland's state capital.
The judge emphasized that Jarrod Ramos already pleaded guilty to all 23 counts against him in 2019, but he has pleaded not criminally responsible due to his mental health.
Jurors in the second phase of his trial will be asked to determine whether Ramos lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct in a case that will be based largely on testimony from mental health experts.
After delays in a case that will be three years old next week, an initial pool of 300 potential jurors was chosen for consideration to fill 12 seats on the jury and several alternates. About 50 of them were already dismissed, based on their responses to a questionnaire.
The court ended up with about 20 qualified jurors after the first round of questioning Wednesday morning at the Anne Arundel County Circuit Courthouse in Annapolis, just a few miles (kilometers) from where the attack happened. Wachs said he's hoping to have a pool of 80 qualified jurors to choose from by the end of the day Thursday
Many of the potential jurors who were dismissed said they would have a difficult time being impartial. Some cited the trouble they would have viewing a video recording of the attack that is expected to be shown.
Ross Suter, senior vice president of litigation solutions for Magna Legal Services, described it as a unique case during a pandemic.
“They're really going to be looking for people that are impartial, that are reasonable — that are going to be able to listen and make up their minds,” Suter said.
Under Maryland's insanity defense law, a defendant has the burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he is not criminally responsible for his actions. State law says a defendant is not criminally responsible for criminal conduct if, because of a mental disorder or developmental disabilities, he lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.
“My understanding is it's a difficult defense to make and to have success with,” Suter said.
Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday, a day after the third anniversary of the shooting.
If Ramos were found not criminally responsible, he would be committed to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of prison.
Ramos, 41, pleaded guilty to killing John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen and Rebecca Smith in the June 28, 2018, attack on the newsroom.
He had a well-documented history of harassing the newspaper’s journalists. He filed a lawsuit against the paper in 2012, alleging he was defamed in an article about his conviction in a criminal harassment case in 2011. The defamation suit was dismissed as groundless.