ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The judge in the massacre of five Maryland newspaper employees gave 300 potential jurors a questionnaire Friday to try to whittle the jury pool in this close-knit community where most people feel connected to the case — an increasingly popular tactic in high-profile cases nationwide as courts move away from change-of-venue options, experts say.
In decades past, such trials were often moved to other communities, where courts could find potential jurors less familiar with the case. But the widespread nature of modern news has made that less effective. In Maryland, many people across the country know about the case against Jarrod Ramos, who faces numerous charges, including first-degree murder, in last year’s shooting at the Capital Gazette.
“Courts view modern media as negating the value of moving the trial,” said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington Law School. “It’s become more important to isolate any possible areas of potential conflict or bias in the jurors.”
Judge Laura Ripken wrote the questionnaire after considering questions from defense attorneys and prosecutors.
In this case, the objective isn’t necessarily to find jurors who’ve never heard of the case, but to narrow the pool to those who neither knew the victims nor have deep-seated views about a suspect’s guilt or innocence.
“I think the judge, rightfully so, foresees that many people that would be called for jury duty in this case will have heard of the incident and will likely have some very strong opinions about the incident in particular,” said Rachel York Colangelo, the national managing director of jury consulting at Philadelphia-based Magna Legal Services.
Crucial questions will be whether any of the prospective jurors know any of the victims. Asking each potential juror about that issue in court can be time-consuming, Turley said.
While knowledge of the June 2018 shooting certainly won’t make someone ineligible to serve on the jury, the judge and attorneys will be focusing on whether a potential juror is willing to listen to the evidence and has not made up his or her mind as to guilt or innocence.
Turley, a practicing criminal defense attorney, said a prospective juror who claims to have no knowledge of the shooting probably would not be wanted for the jury, anyway.
“I would be a tad suspicious about the veracity or normalcy of a juror who lives in an area and is entirely unaware of a horrendous massacre, particularly in such a small town,” Turley said. “You want to have someone who is well-adjusted and reasonable on the jury.”
The questionnaire will give attorneys on both sides an early start in considering prospective jurors who can weigh the evidence impartially, more than a month before three days of jury selection begin Oct. 30.
“This just strikes me as a more efficient way to deal with the problem of making that sort of big first cut with a jury pool that is bound to be compromised, simply because of the high-profile nature of the case,” said David Gray, a University of Maryland law professor who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure.
Ramos, 39, had a long history of harassing the newspaper’s journalists. He sued the newspaper in 2012, alleging he was defamed in an article about his conviction in a criminal harassment case in 2011. The suit was dismissed as groundless and Ramos railed against the newspaper staff on Twitter.
Authorities say he blasted his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom with a shotgun on June 28, 2018, killing John McNamara, Wendi Winters, Rebecca Smith, Gerald Fischman and Rob Hiaasen. Police say Ramos was arrested hiding under a newsroom desk.
Ramos has pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible, Maryland’s version of the insanity defense.
More than 1,000 people streamed through Maryland’s capital during a candlelit march a day after the attack.
This piece originally appeared in Associated Press News on September 27, 2019.