By Hannah Gaskill and Elliott Davis
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS – Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Michael Wachs postponed the Capital Gazette shooting trial on Oct. 30 after the defense asked for more time to review information provided by the prosecution’s mental health expert witnesses.
Attorneys for the gunman responsible for the murders of journalists Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Gerald Fischman, and advertising assistant Rebecca Smith, said that the state’s attorney’s decision to file five new state psychiatric and psychological opinions at 10:45 p.m. on Oct. 29, was in violation of the rule that determines what the state is required to disclose to the defense.
The state argued that it has a right to rebut the defense expert opinions, which they received Oct. 4, the last day guidelines indicate the defense should have provided them.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Laura Ripken ruled earlier in the day that, despite defense counsel arguments, the state’s attorney’s office was not in violation of discovery evidence rules.
After Public Defender Katy O’Donnell responded to Ripken’s denial of the motion, the judge admonished her: “Please don’t roll your eyes at me.”
Assistant State’s Attorney James Tuomey had countered that the defense’s argument was the “most offensive allegation” he has heard, and noted that because the defense did not disclose its own experts until Oct. 4, the prosecution’s timeline to rebut those experts’ findings fell within the rules of discovery.
The rulings came on the morning of the scheduled start of the jury selection process to determine the criminal responsibility of Jarrod Ramos, who pleaded guilty on Oct. 28 to all 23 charges against him.
Marci Mustachio, jury commissioner for the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, told Capital News Service that “the jurors were smiling when they left” a courtroom upon learning of the postponement. About 50 people of the prospective 300-member pool were in a neighboring courtroom.
“The jury pool summoned for this case has completed their service and (has) been released,” said Nadine Maeser, spokeswoman for the Maryland Judiciary, in a statement. She added that she cannot provide other details until a new trial date is determined.
The state had filed five disclosures from four expert witnesses — psychologists and psychiatrists working for the state health department, and hired by the prosecution — related to reports about the mental health of the defendant.
O’Donnell argued on Oct. 30 morning that the prosecution’s disclosures during the evening of Oct. 29 were essentially a discovery violation. The defense said that their team needed more time to review the opinions of the four expert witnesses that the state had submitted.
Tuomey said that the defense’s decision to disclose its witnesses on Oct. 4 — approximately 30 days before the trial was scheduled to begin — was a “tactical” and “knowing” decision.
Prosecutors said their review of defense reports and data and the timing of their response — on the eve of jury voir dire — was within the bounds of discovery rules.
“We have been ready to argue on behalf of the victims in this case,” Tuomey said.
Former Capital Gazette employees declined to comment on the delay and referred calls to a corporate representative.
“We respect the judicial process and remain focused on supporting our staff and the (victims’ families),” Renee Mutchnik, spokeswoman for Baltimore Sun Media, which owns The Capital, said in a statement.
Ripken agreed with Tuomey’s argument that the court was “surprised” when she learned in early October that the defense had yet to disclose its expert witnesses, and that she “did not agree” with the defense’s conclusion that the prosecution’s experts were “new names.”
“I find simply that the state is doing its due diligence,” Ripken said.
Ramos’ lead public defender, William Davis, said in court that the postponement was requested in order to have sufficient time to review a yet-to-be-submitted report from one of the state’s witnesses, a psychiatrist.
Davis told Wachs — who is in charge of postponement scheduling at the court — that if Ripken’s earlier ruling “had gone the other way,” the defense “would not be here asking for this postponement.”
Wachs said Maryland’s standard discovery evidence rules don’t fit the needs of this case, stating that the defense and their experts are entitled to adequate time to review the state’s newly introduced expert disclosure documents.
Davis acknowledged that the delay would be disruptive to the court officers and to the victims in the case.
On the Oct. 31 proceedings follow months of motions hearings leading up to Ramos’ trial.
After he pleaded guilty to all counts on Oct. 28, the trial was supposed to move immediately to the criminal responsibility phase — determining whether he was conscious of his actions, or committed the crimes on June 28 of last year during a mental health emergency — following jury selection.
The Capital Gazette became the object of Ramos’ rage in 2011 after the publication of a column detailing his guilty plea to harassment charges in a case levied against him by a former high school classmate.
The newspaper published the column about the conviction in July 2011. This prompted Ramos to take the newspaper to court, where he represented himself in a defamation lawsuit that was eventually dismissed.
The paper and its staff members, among others, became frequent targets on a Twitter account in Ramos’ name, until it appeared to go dark in January 2016. The account tweeted again from inside of the newsroom on the afternoon of the shooting.
Wachs recommended that the attorneys convene with witnesses and Ripken as soon as possible to discuss rescheduling.
“I think it’s in everyone’s interest to get a resolution,” he said.
Litigators are expecting to know the new trial date by the end of the week. It is expected that the delay will take weeks, if not months.