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Expert explains mental health report on newspaper gunman

A key expert for prosecutors in the Capital Gazette shooting testified Friday that the gunman’s methodical planning both for the attack and for after it indicate he is legally sane and criminally responsible for killing five people at the newsroom in Maryland three years ago.

Dr. Gregory Saathoff, a forensic psychiatrist and a chief consultant for the FBI testified at a pretrial hearing before the second phase of Ramos’ trial, now set for late June before a jury to determine whether he is criminally responsible. Ramos already has pleaded guilty but not criminally responsible due to insanity.

Saathoff described his analysis of Ramos’ ability to organize and conceal plans for the attack at the newspaper office in Annapolis as well as his flexibility to adjust as he carried it out, as primary indicators he was not insane.

“The calculated, methodical efforts that were actualized in the event speak to criminal responsibility,” Saathoff said.

Saathoff also underscored what happened after the rampage inside the newsroom, when Ramos called 911 and placed himself in a nonthreatening position to be arrested under a desk, as evidence he understood the consequences of what he was doing.

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“It indicates awareness of authority and the illegality of the planned crime,” Saathoff said.

Ramos even had prepared for long incarceration: He bought a lifetime membership to the U.S. Chess Federation, four days before the shooting.

Saathoff pointed out that Ramos went so far as to consider what would be of interest to investigators after the crime. For example, he destroyed a journal he kept of his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“It demonstrates an interest in controlling information,” Saathoff said.

Saathoff also cited Ramos hiking the trail in 2002 and 2003 as evidence he does not suffer from autism, as his lawyers contend, because it involved considerable social interaction to meet other people along the way and sometimes stay in their homes.

Employees at the detention center where Ramos has been held told Saathoff that he has been a model inmate. He has been described as polite, not sensitive to being touched when handcuffed and sitting in the middle of other inmates during transport in a van — unlikely qualities of someone suffering from severe autism.

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Defense attorneys have sought to limit Saathoff’s testimony as much as possible, criticizing it for lacking an interview with Ramos. Under cross examination by attorney Matthew Connell, Saathoff said out of about 20 forensic evaluations he has done, only one other lacked a direct interview.

Saathoff requested an interview with Ramos, but the court did not grant it.

However, Saathoff interviewed dozens of people with direct knowledge and experience with Ramos, including staff at the detention center where he has been held, and Ramos’ sister. By casting a wide net, he said he can get a fuller picture beyond what an interview would reveal.

“I find that sometimes there are statements that an individual makes that are misleading,” he said.

While Saathoff will be able to testify, he will not be able to directly compare Ramos to other mass shooters in an FBI report. Prosecutors say the report provides a foundation for the state’s theory that Ramos was not mentally ill and acted in conformity with behaviors such as having a grievance.

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Ramos, 41, had a well-documented history of harassing the newspaper’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.

Dr. Sameer Patel, a psychiatrist with the state Health Department, was in court Thursday. He testified that he interviewed Ramos six times for about 20 hours for his mental health evaluation of Ramos. His report determined Ramos was legally sane.

Defense attorneys have retained their own mental health expert.

Ramos pleaded guilty in October 2019 to all 23 counts against him for killing John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters, Rob Hiaasen and Rebecca Smith.

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