ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Nearly three years after five people at the Capital Gazette newspaper were killed, a Maryland judge discussed plans Tuesday for holding the second part of the shooter's trial under COVID-19 court protocols.
Jarrod Ramos, 41, pleaded guilty in October 2019 to all 23 counts he faced in connection with the attack on the newsroom.
But the trial is not over, since jurors have not yet decided whether Ramos is criminally responsible for the slayings due to his mental health.
Judge Michael Wachs on Tuesday also set a deadline of noon Friday for lawyers to say if they plan to seek a delay over concerns about the protocols in the upcoming phase of the case.
The second phase of the trial has been delayed multiple times since the June 2018 attack. Wachs noted the case will be three years old, even if the trial takes place as now scheduled for three weeks starting in late June.
The judge set the deadline during a pretrial hearing where an attorney for Ramos raised concerns about how mask-wearing and other pandemic precautions like see-through barriers and social distancing in the courtroom could affect the trial.
Wachs said he would still address a request for postponement after Friday, “but for what it's worth, I'm giving you that deadline.”
“I might be less likely to grant relief if you don't do it promptly," Wachs said, adding, "there's a lot of moving parts in the courthouse.”
Wachs, who took over the case earlier this year after the previous judge was appointed to a higher court, said the court now plans to send out 300 court summons to potential jurors Friday afternoon in the high-profile case.
Wachs said another delay closer to the trial date would create further disruption to court personnel for what he described as “this complicated, lengthy trial of magnitude that we haven't seen.”
Ramos' lawyers have expressed a variety of concerns about how protocols ordered by the state's chief judge to avoid the spread of COVID-19 during court proceedings could affect their defense. They have focused particularly on how masks could affect jury selection and prevent lawyers and jurors from observing important facial expressions during testimony.
Wachs said he understood the significance of that, and he said disposable clear face shields would be a reasonable alternative to masks.
Ramos' lawyers say their client objects to wearing a mask throughout the trial, because it's important for the jury to be able to observe him, including his face and facial expressions.
“I think a clear mask would permit the jury to adequately observe Mr. Ramos and also offer protection to everyone in the court room, including his attorneys and the sheriffs and the state's attorneys who are closest to him,” Wachs said.
Ramos pleaded guilty to killing John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen and Rebecca Smith.
He held a longtime grudge against the newspaper, which had written about Ramos pleading guilty to harassing a former high school classmate in 2011. Ramos unsuccessfully sued the writer and the newspaper’s publisher for defamation.
If Ramos were found not criminally responsible, he would be committed to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of prison.