Three attorneys for the defense, at left, and two prosecutors, right, confer at the bench of Judge Laura Ripken, center, on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. The judge ruled later that video from the crime scene would be admissible during the trial, scheduled for November. Drawing by Hannah Gaskill, Capital News Service.

Judge denies defense motion to limit crime-scene video in Capital Gazette case

By: Elliot Davis and Hannah Gaskill, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Laura Ripken denied a defense motion to exclude most of the crime-scene video from the June 2018 Capital Gazette mass shooting site during a hearing Wednesday.

On June 28, 2018, an assailant shot through the office doors of the Capital Gazette newsroom and fatally wounded journalists Robert Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, and John McNamara and advertising assistant Rebecca Smith. Six other Capital employees present during the attack survived.

The motion concerned two videos from the newsroom on the day of the shooting: one showing the front of the office suite where the shooter entered, and one showing the back exit, which was blocked.

After watching the video footage in her chambers following another hearing Tuesday, Ripken watched it again from the bench during the Wednesday hearing, with State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess and Public Defender Elizabeth Palan sitting by her side. Leitess and Palan then took turns making their case.

The footage in dispute does not show anyone being shot but does detail the suspect’s entry into the newsroom and the flash of shots firing. It also shows victims of the attack trying to escape, a wounded Rebecca Smith, and police officers escorting crime reporter Phil Davis back to the scene to retrieve his cellphone before the gunman had been captured.

The shooter, Leitess said, was found hiding in the newsroom — just yards away from the survivors — minutes later. She also said the video shows the shooter’s glasses and hairstyle changing between when he entered the newsroom and when he was taken out by officers.

Palan, along with public defenders William Davis and Katy O’Donnell, is representing Jarrod Ramos, who is charged with five counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and six counts of assault, among other charges. He has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible — the state’s version of a plea of insanity.

Palan argued that the probative value of the video is substantially outweighed by the “unfairly prejudicial” and emotional nature of it, and asked that only stills and a small portion of the video — less than 30 seconds combined, showing the shooter entering the office and walking by the rear exit during the incident — be used during trial.

Leitess countered that the defense is “attempting to sanitize the state’s case.” She argued that the video shows the “methodical hunting” and intent of the shooter and victims fleeing for their lives, some of whom did not survive.

“It shows the real fear that the victims of this case experienced,” Leitess said.

Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Laura S. Ripken in court this week. She is presiding over the Capital Gazette mass shooting case, in which four journalists and an advertising staff member were slain in the newsroom on June 28, 2018, in Annapolis, Maryland. Sketch by Hannah Gaskill, Capital News Service.

After hearing arguments from both sides, Ripken ruled that the video clips “clearly have probative value in this case,” and taken as a whole, the footage “essentially is a witness of the events that occurred.” She added that the “best evidence in this case … is, in fact, the video itself.”

“To redact the video would be that which would cause confusion of the issues” and confusion for the jury, Ripken said from the bench.

Ramos declined to participate in the private bench meetings on Wednesday morning.

When Ripken publicly asked Ramos about his decision to waive, he offered a rare verbal answer in the affirmative, “That is correct.”

The Capital Gazette incurred Ramos’ wrath online after the paper published a 2011 column about his guilty plea in a case of harassment of a former classmate. This prompted him to levy a defamation suit against the paper. It was later dismissed.

The column was ruled admissible as evidence for the state in court on Wednesday afternoon. Ripken also ruled that the defendant’s guilty plea in the harassment case is admissible.

The motion arguments concerning the video took up most of the morning of the hearing. Kerry Berger, an assistant city attorney for Annapolis, met at Ripken’s bench with the prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The defense had moved to see Annapolis Police Department’s internal affairs records. Ripken ruled that one specific file requested would be subject to an in-camera review.

Jury selection for the case is scheduled to occur over the course of three consecutive days starting Oct. 30. The trial is scheduled for early November.

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