The trial of Capital Gazette gunman Jarrod Ramos began June 29, almost exactly three years after he opened fire at the Annapolis, Maryland newspaper. Ramos pled guilty to all 23 criminal charges filed against him, including the murder of five Capital Gazette employees: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters.
But his case has moved forward to trial despite the guilty plea. Why? His attorneys argue that Ramos cannot be held criminally responsible for his actions due to mental illness – often known as an insanity plea.
Insanity Defense Basics
State law on the insanity defense varies, and the rules have changed over the years. The most famous standard is known as the M’Naughten rule, which dates back to the mid-19th century. Under the M’Naughten rule, the defense must clearly prove that:
"[T]he party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of mind, and not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong."
So the M’Naughten defense boils down to three things. First, the defendant has a mental illness. And that mental illness causes them to either:
1. Not understand that their criminal acts were wrong, or
2. Not understand what they were doing at the time of the offense
For example, let’s say a person with severe mental illness attacks someone on the bus because they are convinced the person is actually a demon. They could be found not guilty by reason of insanity if the court determines they truly did not understand that they were attacking another human being.
Another common version of the insanity defense is the Irresistible Impulse Test. This standard developed as an expansion of the M’Naugten rule and states that a person should not be held responsible for a crime if they were unable to control their actions because of mental illness – even if they knew what they were doing was wrong.
Maryland’s version of the insanity defense combines the two. It states that a person is not criminally responsible if mental illness prevented them from understanding their actions were illegal or from controlling themselves at the time of the crime.
Defense Points to Past Relationships, Living Conditions
Ramos’ defense team argues that he became obsessed with the Capital Gazette after a 2011 article detailing the court case of a woman who accused Ramos of harassing her. That obsession devolved into delusion, they say, as he became convinced that the Capital Gazette, the accuser, and even the Maryland courts were conspiring to tarnish his reputation.
The defense points to Ramos’ estrangement from his family, loss of his job, and lack of meaningful relationships as evidence of possible mental health issues. Dr. Catherine Yeager, a psychologist hired by Ramos’ attorneys, diagnosed him with obsessive-compulsive disorder after he told her about an "excessive concern about dirt and germs."
However, prosecutors offered evidence this week undercutting that claim, including a letter from managers of Ramos’ apartment building concerning "housekeeping issues" in his apartment. The state also pointed out inconsistencies between statements Ramos made to Dr. Yeager and conversations with a Maryland Department of Health psychiatrist, Dr. Sameer Patel. Ramos reportedly told Dr. Patel he was angry about the Capital Gazette article because he thought it would hurt his chances with women.
"That’s not a delusion, is it?" State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess asked.
"No," Dr. Yeager replied.
Dr. Patel diagnosed Ramos with a personality disorder. But the prosecution points out that such a diagnosis is often not enough to meet the insanity standard.
The jury is tasked with deciding whether Ramos should be criminally sentenced or committed to a state psychiatric hospital. If they determine he is legally sane, he could face at least five life sentences without the possibility of parole. If not, he will be committed to a state psychiatric hospital. In that case, it’s likely Ramos would be sent to a long-term facility for the rest of his life – but there is a chance for eventual release.
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