ANNAPOLIS — The judge presiding over the criminal case against the man accused of killing five Maryland newspaper employees in 2018 ordered a number of documents to remain under seal as the parties await the start of the second phase of his trial to determine criminal responsibility.
The Capital Gazette and Baltimore Sun newspapers filed an emergency motion to intervene and unseal court records in late October after learning that the majority of the filings in the criminal case against Jarrod Ramos were being shielded from public view. In response, the prosecution and defense filed a joint motion proposing items that should be under seal and those that should be public. Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Laura S. Ripken issued an order Nov. 1 effectively unsealing large portions of the case file.
On Tuesday, Ripken heard arguments on the documents that were sealed under that order, which Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess characterized as fewer than 30 in what has become a massive case garnering national attention.
Ramos pleaded guilty to 23 counts on Oct. 28 shortly before he was scheduled to go to trial but claims he cannot be held criminally responsible for his actions. The documents the attorneys wanted to have sealed mostly relate to Ramos’ mental health and the criminal responsibility trial, which is scheduled to begin March 4.
Nathan Siegel, an attorney for the newspapers, argued that the law requires the court to presume records should be open for public inspection unless the court finds a “special and compelling reason” to seal them.
Ripken ruled Tuesday that most of the challenged documents should remain sealed because of the serious nature of the charges, substantial publicity already garnered by the trial and the fact that many documents reference Ramos’ mental health. Ripken also pointed out that while technically the case is mid-trial, there is a months-long break between the guilt or innocence phase and the criminal responsibility phase. Usually, Ripken said, a jury would be instructed to avoid news about the case between the phases but that is not possible here.
“We are not in an ordinary set of circumstances,” Ripken said.
Ripken ordered a handful of documents to be unsealed, some of them with redactions.
The newspapers’ motion seems to stem in part from lawyers’ use of the electronic filing system in place in the county. Anne Arundel County uses the Maryland Electronic Courts (MDEC) system and in 2014 was the first jurisdiction to launch it.
Leitess said Tuesday that many of the items the newspapers complained were “sealed” were actually not sealed by court order but instead had been marked “confidential” in MDEC. After Ramos admitted to the facts of the killings and the newspapers filed their motion for access, Leitess said the parties reviewed all of the filings and determined many of the documents marked confidential should no longer be shielded from the public.
She characterized the confidential filings as those that, had they been public before Ramos’ plea, could have led to allegations on appeal that he did not get a fair trial.
But the Maryland Rules and MDEC guidance suggest that confidential filings have a specific and limited purpose.
Terri Charles, a spokesperson for the judiciary, said Monday that filers may be required to file documents confidentially if they contain personal identifying information or information that is required by rule or statute to be shielded. To make such a request, the filing party marks the document confidential during the electronic filing process but must also file a redacted version of the document that is public, as well as a motion to seal, Charles said.
The MDEC manual cautions filers not to “automatically select Confidential” when filing a document, Charles said, and anyone can object to a document being marked that way. When filers do select “confidential,” a member of the public using an MDEC kiosk at the courthouse would be able to see that a document had been filed but could not view it. The document is shielded from public view until the court rules on the motion to seal, according to Charles.
Ripken said Tuesday that it was not her impression that either side in the Ramos case was trying to “keep anything secret or hide anything,” but she added that she hoped the hearing cleared up some confusion.
“When something is filed confidentially it is required to be followed by a motion to seal if it is the intent of that party (to have it sealed),” she said.
Siegel, partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington, said Monday that the rules are “pretty clear” about when to shield or seal a record and also require notice of a sealed record and an opportunity for anyone opposed to object.