Crime The killer pleaded guilty. Yet delay in Capital Gazette shooting trial keeps surviving families in limbo
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BALTIMORE — Beth Rittenour received regular updates from prosecutors on the case, and Monday brought good news. The man who shot her oldest daughter and four others during the deadly attack in the Capital Gazette office was finally admitting to the killings.
But Wednesday, she and the other surviving relatives learned their ordeal is still far from over.
Special exhibit honors victims of Capital Gazette mass shooting
A special exhibit remembers the victims of the Capital Gazette mass shooting as the accused shooter prepares to go to trial. © AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana A makeshift memorial for the the five Capital Gazette journalist killed is seen outside the office building housing The Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., on Sunday, July 1, 2018. Prosecutors say 38-year-old Jarrod W. Ramos opened fire Thursday in the Capital Gazette newsroom killing five journalist. The exhibit titled "The faces of Capital Gazette" has been open to the public for weeks at the Art Farm Studios in Annapolis.
“It’s a nightmare,” Rittenour said from her Ohio home. “Another date, another date.”
Her daughter, Rebecca Smith, along with Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Wendi Winters
That meant survivors would likely be spared the public airing of the brutal attack and medical examiner testimony and, in just a few weeks, might never again have to see the man who killed their loved ones and colleagues.
Instead, Ramos’ attorneys on Wednesday were given more time to review mental health records, likely pushing the proceedings into next year. At issue is whether the gunman was sane during the murders — which will determine whether he heads to prison for life or winds up in a psychiatric hospital, where it’s up to doctors to evaluate if he’s ever fully rehabilitated.
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“We knew he was guilty,” said Summerleigh Geimer, Winters’ daughter. “It’s what happens after that that matters the most to us.”
The delayed proceedings have left many witnesses and family members in a legal purgatory, where some say it’s difficult to move on with their lives until the process is complete.
“It kind of feels like a seesaw,” Geimer said. “It felt like we were moving towards the end, towards a point where we don’t have to worry about what might happen with trial and now — the longer you sit without resolution, the more you get doubts in your mind about if justice will be served.”
Capital Gazette is owned by Baltimore Sun Media.
‘The trauma builds’
Now, families of the fallen and the survivors have to prepare for the next phase of trial, where it can feel like reliving the event all over, said Pauline Mandel, director of legal services at the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center.
Accused Capital Gazette Shooter Jarrod Ramos To Plead Guilty To All 23 Criminal Counts
He is now asking for a jury trial on whether he is criminally responsible for Capital Gazette murders. This comes a week after a psychiatrist rules Ramos is legally sane.Hearing in the Capital Gazette mass shooting case starts at 11am @wjzpic.twitter.com/S2ff3oPjzB— Mike Hellgren (@HellgrenWJZ) October 28, 2019He originally had pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible for 23 counts.© Provided by CBS Broadcasting Inc. The 39-year-old has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Ann Smith and Wendi Winters.
“When you know that there’s going to be a hearing or a trial, the trauma builds,” Mandel said. “When we get closer and closer to court it actually feels like you’re reliving the whole thing again.”
It’s important, she said, that victims are ready to face the trauma and try not to react in court, as defense attorneys could argue an emotional outburst prejudices the jury against their client.
“You definitely want to jump across the courtroom,” said Russel Barnes, whose 16-year-old daughter Phylicia Barnes was murdered in Baltimore in 2010. “But you just have to keep your composure. It’s an everyday process.”
Barnes is well versed in the emotional roller coaster that is an extended court case — the man suspected in his daughter’s killing had been tried three times, at first convicted, only later to have a judge throw the case out.
He said he managed through the process because he had a good support system. Barnes also found purpose in speaking up for his daughter, as he pushed for the enactment of “Phylicia’s law,” which now requires state officials to publish a list of missing children and annual statistics.
Capital Gazette shooter will still have to stand trial to determine sanity despite guilty plea
Despite pleading guilty to murdering five staffers at the Capital Gazette newspapers, the gunman’s fate still rests in the hands of a jury. An Anne Arundel County jury is to decide whether Jarrod Ramos will be locked up in a state prison or committed to Maryland’s maximum-security psychiatric hospital. On Monday, the 39-year-old Laurel man changed course to plead guilty to murdering Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters and John McNamara in the Annapolis office last year. Ramos had previously pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible — Maryland’s version of the insanity plea.
“That was my relief. I put my anger into that,” he said. “You have to stay focused on your loved ones. You are speaking for them.”
Since the Capital Gazette attack, three of the mourners have channeled their pain in their advocacy for stricter gun laws: Geimer; Andrea Chamblee, McNamara’s widow; and Maria Hiaasen, Rob’s widow.
Rachael Pacella, a Capital Gazette reporter who survived the attack, diligently took notes during Monday’s hearing; her notebook, she said, provided “a little shield between me and the defendant. I think it’s important to be there.”
Pacella said she has found comfort in pottery and has found a local studio where she can process what has happened through art.
Right now, though, it feels as though everything remains on hold.
“You don’t feel like you can ever commit to anything,” she said.
Meanwhile, Rittenour said she is struggling to process her daughter’s death.
“I haven’t had a chance to properly grieve my daughter,” she said, recalling a family beach trip in August, and how her daughter loved the ocean.
“There are no words to describe how it feels to have a daughter taken away in such a cowardly way,” she said.
Each family and victim react differently, said former Harford County State’s Attorney Joseph Cassilly. “A trial being postponed could serve as a reprieve for victims and their families.”
Baltimore Sun, Capital Gazette ask judge to give public access to court records in mass shooting case
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.
For prosecutors, he said it means more time to prepare. But also, at this stage of the proceedings, prosecutors are less reliant on “fact witnesses” who are trying to remember the events of that day. Much of the testimony will come from experts who will discuss Ramos’ mental health, he said.
‘The silver lining’
An attorney by trade, Chamblee said she takes some comfort in believing the delay could derail a future appeal.
“I know it’s awful to have to wait, but if he appealed this decision and won, we’d all be going through this again,” said Chamblee. “If this shuts off an avenue for an appeal for the defendant, then we need to do that. I’m willing to pay the price of waiting.”
Chamblee said the delay will help her focus on the launch of her late husband’s book.
“I’m going to look at that as the silver lining of this big dark awful cloud,” she said.
McNamara worked for 13 years on the book, “The Capital of Basketball: A History of DC Area High School Hoops” and Chamblee made sure it was published posthumously. As she sat in court Monday, McNamara’s title was trending on Amazon. It was the No. 1 selling basketball book that day.
Hiaasen said she doesn’t plan to attend the trial of her husband’s killer, not unless her daughter Hannah, who plans to be there, asks for her support.
“I know that, to hope to achieve a healthy, happy life, I have to focus on my everyday: My family, my job, things I care about,” she said.
And that’s just where she was this week, teaching English to juniors at Dulaney High in Timonium. She appreciates that her job is consuming and she can focus on her students during the school day. Yet still, this week she found herself checking her email:
“What do we know?”
She must keep up with the basics, for the sake of logistics — so she can let Hannah know when to come back from New York, where she works. But she read the news reports too, to digest what happened.
“We work, all of us, so hard to find a new normal and this of course yanks us right back,” she said, although she is keeping things in perspective.
“There are worse things in life,” she said. “The worst happened on June 28, 2018.”
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Trial to determine sanity of newspaper shooter set for March .
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A Maryland judge on Thursday scheduled a March trial to determine whether a man who has pleaded guilty to killing five people at a Maryland newspaper is not criminally responsible because of mental illness. Judge Laura Ripken scheduled Jarrod Ramos' trial to start March 4 and last 13 days. Ramos, 39, pleaded guilty last month to all 23 counts against him, including first-degree murder in the June 2018 shooting at the Capital Gazette that killed John McNamara, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman and Rob Hiaasen.