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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 10:45 pm | Fog/Mist 49º


Defense in MS-13 Gang-Murder Case Seeks Gag Orders For Police, Prosecutors, Press

Defense attorneys representing alleged MS-13 gang members indicted in connection with multiple homicides in Santa Maria are asking a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge to gag police, prosecutors and the press.

The case returns to Judge John McGregor's courtroom Friday for the continued arraignment on the indictments handed down last summer by a criminal grand jury.

But defense attorney Tom Allen, who represents Emedalio Mejia Bonilla, and Stephen Dunkle, who represents Marcos Sanchez Torres, have filed motions seeking gag orders while contending their clients’ rights to a fair trial are threatened. 

Allen’s motion likely won’t be heard Friday since it was filed late and media outlets were not given proper notice. 

Dunkle is seeking a protective order prohibiting any lawyer, witness, court official or law enforcement officer from making any extrajudicial statements, citing several news stories quoting Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin.

“These kinds of extrajudicial communications are inappropriate and compromise Mr. Torres’ and the other defendants' rights to a fair and impartial jury, a fair trial, and due process of law,” Dunkle wrote in his motion citing the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Dunkle said the public statements have prejudiced the jury pool against his client and the co-defendants, and contended the statements appear coordinated to persuade potential jurors "that the defendants are guilty and that their crimes are unprecedentedly heinous."

“A protective order will help to ensure the case will be tried in the court and not the press,” Dunkle wrote. “There is no prejudice to the parties, and in fact, such an order enhances the chance of obtaining an impartial jury, a fair trial and due process of law.”

In a response to Dunkle’s motion, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen and Deputy District Attorney Mai Trieu noted that their office asked Judge Timothy Staffel to seal the grand jury transcripts from the case to protect victims and witnesses, precautions that also protect the defendants,

“It is because of the motion by the prosecution that the facts of the horrendous charges faced by defendant are not in the public record,” Bramsen and Trieu said in the response. “This case is unprecedented in the number of murder victims, 10, coupled with the additional 14 who defendant is charged with conspiring to commit the murder of.”

“It is actually remarkable how little press the case has received considering the charges and how few times the defendant was even named in the articles,” Bramsen said.

In response to questions about whether publicity will make it difficult to find a jury, Bramsen cited the criminal trial of pop star Michael Jackson.

“In this very courthouse, one of the most well-known celebrities in the entire world, Michael Joseph Jackson, received a fair trial and was found not guilty by a jury,” Bramsen said.

“Defendant’s argument that a protective order is necessary to protect his right to a fair trial is speculative at best, and does not pass the constitutional muster necessary to enjoin free speech.”

The prosecution team also argued that the defense request is unconstitutional and unworkable since it is vague.

For the Jackson trial, Judge Rodney Melville sealed the defense motion to set aside the indictment and the prosecutor’s response, with arguments held in open court.

The prosecutors’ said an alternative would be having defense motions filed under seal and order a closed hearing for arguments “to further protect the incredibly incriminating facts of this case from being tried in the media.”

Along with supporting Dunkle’s proposed gag order, Allen filed a much broader motion, apparently aiming to stop the detailed news media reports on the case and citing White House comments about undocumented immigrants.

The prosecution team expects to file a response to Allen’s motion once the judge sets a date to hear the matter.  

It was not clear to what extent Allen’s motion seeks to halt dissemination of information about the case. 

“The information contained in prior and ongoing publicity is highly inflammatory and contains remarks that negatively and prejudicially reflect on the defendants herein and are designed to, or have the effect of, depriving the defendants of a fair trial,” Allen said. 

The motion reportedly was served to several media outlets including Noozhawk, KCOY/KEYT television, the San Luis Obispo Tribune and the Santa Maria Times.

“Although it may be asserted by the parties against whom these protective orders are sought that publicity is generally protected media coverage, it is to be considered in balancing the various constitutional interests when determining whether defendant Mejia and others will receive a fair trial,” Allen said.

To support his motion, Allen cited local and appellate judges in opinions regarding the Jackson trial. While the defendants in the current case lack the celebrity status of Jackson, Allen contends “a torrent of pretrial publicity” occurred in both cases.

“Any further dissemination of information, other than procedural and calendaring information regarding the prosecution of this case, will irreparably prejudice defendant and deprive him of his constitutionally mandated right to a fair trial and due process,” Allen added.

Allen does not spell out details of his motion, but suggested that only the bare-bones information on the docket and minute orders should be made public. 

“The burden of demonstrating reasonable alternatives to the scope of the requested protective orders rests with the media,” Allen wrote, quoting the approach used in the Jackson trial. 

The motions were filed more than a year after the arrests of most of the men in a case authorities initially dubbed Operation Matador and more than six months after a criminal grand jury handed out down indictments against multiple defendants.

"Attempting to prevent journalists from covering this case is a serious overreach," said Tom Bolton, executive editor of Noozhawk, "and it clearly would be an unconstitutional undertaking. The public has a huge vested interest in knowing the details of this case.

"Moreover, it's ironic that Mr. Allen cites the Michael Jackson case, which involved a massive amount of coverage and public interest, far beyond this gang murder case, and yet yielded a not-guilty verdict. It would take a tortured reading of the law to grant this gag order on the press."

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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