Lawyers argue about psychologist in newspaper attack case

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Attorneys for a man who killed five people at a Maryland newspaper argued Wednesday that a psychologist retained by prosecutors should not be able to testify about his observations of the man's jail cell or interviews with jail personnel when jurors consider whether he's not criminally responsible due to his mental health.

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Prosecutors contended the arguments are groundless.

Judge Laura Ripken has set aside pretrial hearings in the case of Jarrod Ramos, who pleaded guilty last year to killing five at the Capital Gazette newspaper in 2018. Lawyers are now arguing over what jurors will hear in the second phase of the trial to determine whether Ramos is not criminally responsible — Maryland's version of an insanity defense.

Dr. Gregory Saathoff, who was retained by prosecutors, interviewed employees beginning in October at the detention center where Ramos has been held. Saathoff also looked into Ramos’ cell when he wasn't present.

Matthew Connell, one of Ramos' lawyers, argued that the psychologist's observations of the cell amounted to “a warrantless search,” which neither Ramos nor his attorneys knew about it.

“We are claiming that his cell was searched,” Connell said.

David Russell, a prosecutor in the case, contended that simply looking through a window does not constitute a search.

“This is a question of someone looking through a window from a place they have a lawful vantage point to be in," Russell said.

Connell also argued that his client's rights were violated when Saathoff interviewed 35 personnel at the detention center without the knowledge of Ramos or his attorneys.

“In addition, your honor, medical personnel disclosed confidential information that never should have been disclosed about Mr. Ramos, and we believe that that is a due process violation as well," Connell said. "For all of these reasons, we are asking the court to suppress Dr. Saathoff’s evaluation.”

But Russell said Saathoff asked basic questions about everyday interactions — such as details about transporting Ramos to and from court — that did not rise to the level of requiring an attorney to be present under the law.

Several of the employees testified in court Wednesday, and more were scheduled to be called Thursday. Ripken has set aside three days of hearings, including Thursday and Tuesday of next week.

“I'll let both sides argue, and at the conclusion I'll make a ruling, and I will address all of the issues that both sides have raised,” Ripken said.

The case, which includes videotaped evidence of Ramos shooting his way through the newspaper, is more than two years old. The second phase of the trial is now scheduled for December. The case has been repeatedly delayed, most recently because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The case has three groups of mental health experts.

Dr. Sameer Patel, a psychiatrist with the state Health Department, has conducted a mental health evaluation of Ramos. The evaluation has not been made public, but Ripken said in court in October that Patel found Ramos to be legally sane.

Defense attorneys have retained their own mental health experts, and they are arguing Ramos should not be held criminally responsible because of mental illness.

Ripken has denied a request by prosecutors to conduct a separate evaluation of Ramos. However, the judge ruled the state could prepare its own case in various ways, including challenging the defense experts’ findings and reports.

Ramos pleaded guilty in October to all 23 counts against him for killing John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen and Rebecca Smith.

The 40-year-old had a well-documented history of harassing the Capital Gazette’s journalists. He filed a lawsuit against the paper in 2012, alleging he was defamed in an article about his conviction in a criminal harassment case in 2011. The defamation suit was dismissed as groundless, and Ramos railed against staff at the newspaper in profanity-laced tweets.

If Ramos were found not criminally responsible, he would be committed to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of prison.