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This June 24, 2021 photo shows a memorial in Annapolis, Md., that is being dedicated on Monday, June 28, 2021, to the five people who were killed in a mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper three years earlier. Represented by the five pillars, Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, and John McNamara died in the shooting. The panel behind the pillars shows the First Amendment. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Memorial to Capital Gazette shooting victims dedicated, one day before trial to begin

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Survivors and family members of victims of the five people who were killed in a mass shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper office dedicated a memorial to them and the First Amendment on Monday on the third anniversary of the attack.

The tribute came amid grave concerns expressed by some in a long list of speakers about the future survival of the newspaper, which has come under new ownership.

The memorial, titled “Guardians of the First Amendment,” includes five pillars to represent the five lives lost in the shooting: Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters. It includes a rounded brick edifice, which holds a panel showing the First Amendment.

Maria Hiaasen, Rob’s widow, said the memorial pays tribute to the losses of loved ones, as well as the triumph of the staff, who rallied to publish on the next day despite the attack.

“It’s also perfect because of its honor of the First Amendment, the basic principal journalism stands on,” Hiaasen said.

Rick Hutzell, the former editor, choked up as he remembered his slain colleagues before a crowd that sat for nearly two hours on a hot summer day on a closed-off street in front of the new memorial in downtown Annapolis. He urged people who care about journalism to subscribe to local news outlets.

“If you care about journalism and truth and freedom of the press anywhere, subscribe to your local news organization, whether it’s a newspaper or a digital new service or something because that’s the only way they will survive,” Hutzell said.

He added of his former paper, “it’s going to need a lot of support to keep going.”

The newspaper was recently acquired by New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital. The Alden deal is the latest major acquisition of a newspaper company by an investment firm dedicated to maximizing profits in distressed industries. The collapse of print advertising as readers migrated to digital publications has rocked the traditional newspaper business.

David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun journalist and creator of the HBO show “The Wire,” excoriated “the solitary metric of maximized profit” that he said “is devouring American newspapering.”

“Here in Maryland, the Capital Gazette of this city and The Sun of Baltimore are brutalized by out of town ownership that answers to the hunger of shareholders, not to any public or community obligation,” Simon said.

He painfully noted that “here in Annapolis the newsroom of the paper where people gave their lives no longer actually exists.” The Capital Gazette moved to another newsroom office, but former owner Tribune Publishing closed it and four other newspaper offices last year. The newspaper has continued to publish.

“It’s been sold out from under the now thread-bare staff,” Simon said.

Phil Davis, who was in the newsroom the day of the attack, recalled how three years ago he stood downtown amid hundreds gathered as the community gathered for solace in the aftermath.

“Now three years later, this heat feels all too familiar, but still just as hot,” Davis said. “It’s hard to avoid all that surrounded The Capital in the years since the shooting, as time and corporate interests did not stand still after the tragedy.”

Local officials also expressed concern about the newspaper’s future.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman, who wrote a letter this month to the hedge fund urging it to preserve local news coverage, said he hoped its leadership would visit the community soon.

“I hope that their stockholders hear our story and work with us to grow, rather than shrink our newspaper, and if they don’t I hope that we can find a way to recreate what they take away from us,” Pittman said.

The memorial dedication was held the day before opening statements are scheduled for the second phase of the trial to determine whether gunman Jarrod Ramos was legally sane at the time of the shooting. He pleaded guilty to all 23 counts against him in October 2019, but he is contending he’s not criminally responsible due to mental illness.

Jury selection was completed Friday in the case against Ramos, who called 911 moments after the rampage from inside the newsroom, identified himself as the shooter and said he surrendered. He was later arrested lying face down under a desk.

Residents who were shaken by the assault on their local newspaper are hopeful that an end to the gunman’s dragging court case is finally near.

Ray Feldmann, who knew some of the victims and the survivors, remembers driving out of his neighborhood on June 28, 2018, and seeing a swarm of police and emergency vehicles converged around the newspaper’s office, blocks from his home. Now, he says the attack lives in his memory with a magnitude comparable to his recollections of historic events like the 9/11 attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“It’s just hard,” Feldmann said in a recent interview. “The three-year anniversary is coming up in a few days, and there still hasn’t been a trial. I think it does weigh on people.”

The difficulty of the case was evident during jury selection, as potential jurors described how hard it would be to view evidence, while others described connections they had with their local newspaper.

Juror 14 sobbed in court, as Judge Michael Wachs asked her follow-up questions after she indicated she would have trouble watching a video recording during the trial of the attack inside the newsroom that shows victims being shot.

“I cannot handle it,” she said through a mask, choking up in court, before the judge dismissed her from the jury pool.

Juror 27 spoke of how she had met Winters, a reporter who wrote a weekly column focusing on a student at a school in the community. Before being dismissed from the jury, juror 27 described how she used to take children to the newspaper for photographs, and had been troubled by thoughts of what it would have been like to have been at the newspaper at the time of the shooting.

“This hurts,” said Donna Cole, a longtime local journalist in Annapolis who used to write for the newspaper and knew Winters. “This hurts the community. This hurts people that didn’t know any of these people. The entire community was impacted by this mass shooting. We want to see justice served.”

The second part of the trial was initially set for November 2019, but Ramos’ lawyers were granted a postponement. The defense contended they had not received adequate information about what experts for prosecutors intended to tell the jury. The trial was delayed again in February 2020 after one of Ramos’ three public defenders left the case for medical reasons, pushing it to June 2020. The pandemic delayed it further.

The judge estimated the case will last 10 business days. He said during jury selection a “vast majority” of the case will consist of testimony from mental health experts called by defense attorneys and prosecutors.

“It’s going to come down to the battle of the experts to a certain extent,” said Ross Suter, senior vice president of litigation solutions for Magna Legal Services.

Under Maryland’s insanity defense law, a defendant has the burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that he is not criminally responsible for his actions. State law says a defendant is not criminally responsible for criminal conduct if, because of a mental disorder or developmental disabilities, he lacked substantial capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.

If Ramos were found not criminally responsible, he would be committed to a maximum-security psychiatric hospital instead of prison. Prosecutors are seeking life without possibility of parole.

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.

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