By Hannah Gaskill
A thread that pulled the gunman responsible for the June 2018 murders of journalists Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara and Gerald Fischman, and advertising assistant Rebecca Smith, closer to The Capital Gazette newspaper through the years is one that the justice system now has its eyes focused on: His sanity.
Whether Jarrod Ramos is sane — and therefore criminally responsible for the murders and associated acts — is a question that attorneys on both sides have spent months preparing to answer.
Looking back through his court history shows a man who in 2012 sued the paper for libel, particularly aggrieved because, he said in court documents, a column it published implied he was insane.
Now, a ruling of legal insanity may keep him out of prison.
That trial is scheduled to begin in March.
“You’ve crippled my life for a year, and now I’m going to cripple your company forever,” now-convicted murderer Jarrod Ramos wrote in an October 2012 letter to former Capital Gazette editor and publisher Thomas Marquardt.
Ramos was referencing a July 2011 column published by The Capital, headlined “Jarrod wants to be your friend,” that detailed circumstances behind a guilty plea in a harassment suit levied against him by a former Arundel High School classmate. The piece describes messages he sent to his harassment victim, whom Capital News Service is not naming, in a months-long cyber-barrage that the column reported “caused her to live in fear for her safety.”
Ramos represented himself in a lawsuit against the paper in 2012, claiming that the column reported a “multitude of extraneous, false and defamatory statements,” according to March 2013 court transcripts. His complaint stated the editorial conveyed that he was “literally, clinically insane,” “a threatening and dangerous person,” that he “has and continues to actively seek out people on the Internet … with predatory motives and criminal intent” and that he is a “cowardly and dishonorable person.”
In that March 2013 hearing, Ramos focused his attention on one piece in particular — which he said he considered to be “the single most defamatory statement of the entire column.” It reads: “His messages rambled… saying ‘Expletive you, leave me alone’ though she hadn’t written him in months.”
Ramos argued that the notion that he was answering non-existent messages would cause readers to assume that he was mentally ill.
“That carries a clear implication that something is wrong inside my head, that I’m insane,” he said, according to the records.
Though first referenced in a January 2011 court document penned by his harassment victim, in both his complaint in the suit against The Capital and in court transcripts, Ramos claimed that the message was never exchanged.
In a transcript, Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Maureen Lamasney, who presided over the defamation suit, asked Ramos whether he felt the harm he was alleging The Capital to have caused would lead readers to think “there might be some mental imbalance,” to which he responded in the affirmative. He also said that in “addition to a number of other things,” the phrase and headline insinuated that he was also “dangerous” and “threatening.”
“It portrays me as some sort of internet predator,” Ramos said in court. “And the headline basically says he’s coming for you next. Any person who reads that, I expect, would be horrified.”
Lamasney dismissed the case in March 2013, saying that because the statement came from a public record it was not defamatory. According to the transcript, Ramos countered that the column didn’t reference the record, leaving readers with no clue of where the statement was pulled from.
“I understand that, but that does not make it false,” said Lamasney.
“But it makes it unfair,” said Ramos.
The case was appealed and dismissed again.
In a 2015 unreported opinion filed in the Court of Special Appeals, Judge Charles Moylan Jr. wrote that Ramos was “aggrieved” because he “wanted equal coverage of his side of the story.”
“He wanted a chance to put the victim in a bad light, in order to justify and explain why he did what he did,” Moylan wrote. “That, however, is not the function of defamation law.”
Nearly three years later, on the day that he shot through the glass doors of the Capital Gazette and proceeded to kill five employees, Ramos wrote letters to multiple people. One of them was Moylan.
Before the defamation suit was ultimately dismissed and while other suits Ramos was engaged in raged on, the paper and its staff members, among others, were frequent targets of vitriol on a Twitter account in his name until in 2016, when the posts appeared to have ceased.
One final tweet was sent from the account on the afternoon of the shooting. It read “(Expletive) you, leave me alone @judgemoylanfrnd.” The tagged account bearing Moylan’s name also appears to belong to Ramos.
Public defender Elizabeth Palan, a defense attorney for Ramos in the murder case, stated in court that he tweeted from inside the Capital Gazette newsroom.
Ramos originally entered a plea of not guilty.
He pleaded not criminally responsible, Maryland’s version of an insanity plea, in late April — 10 months and one day after the shooting occurred.
On Oct. 28, two days before jury selection for the trial to determine his guilt was set to begin, he entered a guilty plea to all 23 counts against him.
Cases determining criminal responsibility, also known as pleas of not criminally responsible — or NCR — in Maryland are bifurcated, or split in two, with the phase that would determine guilt being argued first. Had Ramos not pleaded guilty, that portion of the trial would have begun in early November.
Supervising Attorney for the Forensic Mental Health Division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender Mary Pizzo — who said she cannot comment on any specific cases — said that guilt must be established before criminal responsibility can be determined.
In cases where the court is trying to determine criminal responsibility, it’s the job of defense attorneys to prove that, at the time of the crime, their client was so incapacitated by mental illness that they did not understand the criminal weight of their actions or that they were unable to refrain from behaving in a criminal way. The burden of proof is by the preponderance of evidence — a legal term that Pizzo described plainly as “more likely than not that it happened,” or “a hair over 50%.”
In contrast, to prove criminal guilt, the prosecuting attorneys must establish that an individual is guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt — a much higher burden of proof.
In order to establish a defense of not criminally responsible, attorneys investigate their client’s mental health history, consulting a number of experts to prove that their client was experiencing a severe mental health deficit at the time of the offense.
If the individual is found not criminally responsible, they are taken into the custody of the state’s health department and placed in a state forensic psychiatric hospital until it’s decided that they are no longer threatening to themselves or their community, which Pizzo said could be a long time.
After being held at the state hospital for 50 days, an evaluation and first hearing may be conducted to determine whether continued psychiatric commitment is necessary.
Pizzo said that securing a finding of not criminally responsible doesn’t happen often because there’s a lot that goes into proving it: Lawyers must show the severity of their client’s mental illness at the time of the incident — not just that they are or have been mentally ill. She said to see such cases litigated in court is rare.
“NCR cases are not frequent,” she said.
Pizzo went on further to explain that whenever there’s a case where a defendant seems to have a mental illness or a history of mental health issues, “a prudent attorney will always investigate whether or not they were criminally responsible at the time.” She said it depends on the amount of access to mental health history, facts surrounding the event, along with expert opinion and other information that determines whether it’s a viable defense.
“I think people are misled that it’s a frequent thing.”
Ramos pleaded guilty on Oct. 28. The trial determining Ramos’ role in the slayings was delayed on Oct. 30 so that defense attorneys could review documents provided by the prosecution’s expert witnesses — the same day that potential jurors reported for duty at the Anne Arundel County Circuit Courthouse.
That day, Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess filed a motion to keep private records that may contain information pertaining to his mental health, among others.
Many other court files that had been kept confidential became public, including a correspondence between state and defense attorneys describing an incident at Rocky Gorge Animal Hospital in Laurel.
According to the records, Ramos brought his starving cat to the animal hospital, where he told veterinary technicians that his “cat wasn’t eating and that he wasn’t feeding the cat.” One employee took this to mean that Ramos did not understand that his not feeding the animal led to its starvation. The cat was ultimately euthanized, and Ramos took its body home in a bag.
The email exchange detailing this incident occurred on April 24, 2019. Ramos entered a plea of not criminally responsible on April 29.
Attempts to contact Ramos’ family; his attorneys in the case; and the harassment victim and her family were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman from the Anne Arundel State’s Attorney’s office offered no comment. He is still left to face his plea of not criminally responsible, at a trial now set to begin on March 4.