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Judge rules on scope of testimony in newspaper shooting case

September 18, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this June 29, 2018, file photo, of five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper adorn candles during a vigil across the street from where they were slain in the newsroom in Annapolis, Md. A judge has ruled Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, a psychiatrist retained by prosecutors in the case of a man who killed five people at a Maryland newspaper can testify about whether he believes the gunman was criminally responsible in the sanity phase of his trial. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
FILE - In this June 29, 2018, file photo, of five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper adorn candles during a vigil across the street from where they were slain in the newsroom in Annapolis, Md. A judge has ruled Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, a psychiatrist retained by prosecutors in the case of a man who killed five people at a Maryland newspaper can testify about whether he believes the gunman was criminally responsible in the sanity phase of his trial. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A psychiatrist retained by prosecutors in the sanity phase of a trial for a man who killed five people at a Maryland newspaper isn’t barred by law from testifying about whether he believes the gunman was criminally responsible, but he can’t directly compare him to other mass shooters in an FBI report, a judge ruled Friday.

Judge Laura Ripken ruled at a pretrial hearing that Dr. Gregory Saathoff can testify before a jury about his findings relating to the criminal responsibility of Jarrod Ramos, even though Saathoff has not examined him in person.

The judge ruled last month that Saathoff could testify, but defense attorneys have been trying to limit the scope of what he can say on the stand. They contended the lack of an interview with Ramos should preclude the psychiatrist’s testimony on criminal responsibility.

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“I find that based on the law, Dr. Saatoff, in the state of Maryland, is not barred by law from offering testimony on the ultimate issue of criminal responsibility due to the lack of the interview of the defendant, which is the bulk of the defense argument,” Ripken said.

The judge noted she would still need to make a determination during the trial that Saatoff is qualified and that he relied on information used by experts in the field to make his findings.

The judge also ruled Saatoff can testify about an FBI report designed to provide federal, state and local law enforcement with data on mass shootings in the country, but he can’t compare Ramos to other mass shooters in the report. Prosecutors say the report provides a foundation for the state’s theory that Ramos was not mentally ill and acted in conformity with other mass shooters’ behaviors.

“It may be used as a basis, and the theories may be presented, but at this point in time without ... another sufficient legal basis, they would have to be presented without comparison or statistics related to other mass shooters,” Ripken said.

The judge said it was too soon for her to rule on other efforts by Ramos’ lawyers to restrict Saathoff’s testimony, because she has not seen all of the evidence.

The trial’s second phase is scheduled for December before a jury to determine criminal responsibility. If Ramos were found not criminally responsible for the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper, he would be committed to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of prison.

There are three different mental health experts in the case.

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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 expert and they are arguing Ramos should not be held criminally responsible because of mental illness.

Last year, Ripken denied a request by prosecutors to conduct a separate evaluation of Ramos, because the state already had conducted one. However, the judge ruled prosecutors could prepare their 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 at the Capital Gazette. The attack was captured on surveillance video and Ramos was arrested hiding under a desk in the newsroom.

The 40-year-old had a well-documented history of harassing the newspaper’s journalists.