In a courtroom 10 minutes away from where a man blasted through the glass doors of the Capital Gazette newsroom and killed five of its employees, a judge began the arduous task of selecting a jury from a region profoundly shaken by the actions of the defendant on trial.
One potential juror worked at a hospital where two victims were transported that day almost three years ago. Another bought a house from a Gazette employee who lost her assistant in the shooting. She remembered that employee pouring an extra glass of wine while they were signing documents.
A local track coach recalled that Wendi Winters, an editor and community reporter for the Gazette who died in the shooting, used to write features about her students.
And most people — whether through online media, print subscriptions to the Gazette or hearsay — had prior knowledge about that dark day in Annapolis.
“Pretty much everyone has heard about the case, so the question is whether you’d be able to decide the case solely on what you hear about in the courtroom,” Anne Arundel County Judge Michael Wachs said to dozens of potential jurors.
Jarrod Ramos, 41, has already pleaded guilty to committing the mass shooting but said he should not be held criminally responsible because of a mental disorder.
That means jurors will contend with Maryland’s version of the insanity defense, one of the more complex legal concepts, which involves determining whether a person had the ability to understand the criminality of their behavior at the time of the incident and conform it to the requirements of the law.
The outcome of the trial could put Ramos behind bars for life, or it could commit him to a state hospital for an indefinite period.
Given the magnitude of the case and its impact on the region, Wachs has taken historic steps to ensure a fair and impartial jury. An average first-degree murder case typically involves about 100 potential jurors, area lawyers said. Wachs summoned 300.
“This is the most significant murder trial in the history of Anne Arundel County,” said Peter O’Neill, a private defense attorney in Maryland. “It’s unheard of to have 300 prospective jurors come to the court.”
Just after 9 a.m. Wednesday, the first group of about 50 filed into the Anne Arundel County courtroom, where vaccinated people sat on the left and non-vaccinated people sat on the right. The judge permitted everyone who was vaccinated to move forward without a mask, while those without the inoculation had to wear masks. The potential jurors were all spaced six feet apart.
As jury selection began, Ramos sat next to his counsel dressed in jail attire and a cloth mask. He rejected the clear mask that the courtroom provided in response to his request that potential jurors be able to see his facial expressions.
Wachs said he hopes to seat a jury in time to begin opening statements on Tuesday, the day after the third anniversary of the mass shooting.
The process unfolded Wednesday in two parts for two groups of about 50 potential jurors. First, Wachs asked each group 40 yes-or-no questions about their personal history, beliefs about the legal system, relationship to victims and possible witnesses, and knowledge of the day that Ramos methodically opened fire at the newspaper.
The potential jurors then filed one by one into the courtroom, where Wachs further inquired about their ability to remain impartial in trying Ramos.
“I work in athletics, so I’m close to the sports side of the Capital [Gazette],” said Potential Juror 2, who is close friends with a current Gazette sports reporter and knew John McNamara, a sports reporter and editor whom Ramos killed.
“Do you believe you can be neutral?” Wachs asked from behind his desk.
“I think I would struggle with that, sir,” he replied.
Wachs deemed him unfit for the jury and moved on to to Potential Juror 3 of 300.
The trial, which has been repeatedly delayed from its original date in November 2019, is expected to last 10 business days.
Melissa Rothstein, director of policy and development for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, declined to comment on behalf of Ramos’s defense team.
Unlike traditional murder trials in which the prosecution must prove that the defendant is guilty, a plea of not criminally responsible places the burden of proof on the defense.
While the defense probably will draw attention to Ramos and what they say are his battles with mental illness, the prosecution is expected to shine light on his long-simmering vendetta against the Capital Gazette — which began with a column in 2011 about his guilty plea in a harassment case.
Ramos filed a defamation lawsuit against the paper in 2012 and sent harassing messages and letters to staff at the newspaper for years before plotting the attack, prosecutors said.
He lost the lawsuit in 2015. Three years later, he wielded a shotgun and ended the lives of five Capital Gazette employees: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Winters.
If Ramos is found not criminally responsible, he could eventually be released from a mental institution if reviews from staff indicate he is no longer a threat to himself or others. He would be eligible to apply for release once a year after his first year in the institution.