Twelve men charged in connection with multiple gang-related homicides in Santa Maria appeared in Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Friday for a pair of brief hearings, but did not enter pleas to the charges.
Judge John McGregor continued the arraignment hearing until June 2 at the request of defense attorneys, one of whom is new to the case involving criminal grand jury indictments handed down last summer.
At the next hearing, McGregor said he would hear defense motions seeking the gag orders for police, prosecutors, the press and others connected to the case, with the attorneys claiming the unusual steps are needed to protect the defendants’ right to a fair trial.
The charges stem from the multi-agency law enforcement operation dubbed Operator Matador and undertaken in March 2016 in a case authorities said involved the violent international criminal gang dubbed MS-13, and also known as Mara Salvatrucha.
Last summer, a criminal grand jury handed down a 50-count indictment including multiple murder charges involving 10 victims, plus conspiracy to commit murder involving 14 additional victims.
Defense attorney Stephen Dunkle filed a motion to gag prosecutors, police, witnesses and court officials, with defense attorney Tom Allen seeking an even broader protective order to include the news media.
The judge told the attorneys that anyone who wanted to join either motion must file paperwork by April 14.
Responses to the motions are due April 28, with replies required by May 12.
Any other motions to be heard June 2 must be filed by April 28, McGregor said, setting dates for replies.
At the start of the week, Allen served multiple media agencies with his gag order motion.
“It has to do with the information that’s shared outside the courtroom by the media, by the prosecutor, by defense attorney, by witnesses or by anybody else,” Allen said outside the courtroom Friday.
He declined to provide specific details about how extensively he wants to restrict media coverage and other information about the case.
“I think I should probably reserve that until we have the actual time of the hearing,” Allen said. “I don’t want to either lock myself down or step on what I said.”
“My pleadings and those of Mr. Dunkle’s are clear on what the issues are and trying to fashion some kind of resolution that meets the objectives of the First Amendment as far as publication and those kinds of things and the Fifth Amendment due process and right to a fair trial,” he added.
During the high-profile trial for the 2013 killing of Anthony Ibarra, whose body was found in a U-Haul truck parked in Orcutt, hundreds of potential jury candidates were dismissed.
However, many potential jurors were immediately dismissed after telling the judge they could not serve on the multi-month trial.
Allen said he listened to “hundreds of hundreds” of responses to media questions and the impact of the media reports on potential jurors.
“Well, you start to lose a certain population sometimes that represents a cross-section of the community,” he said. “What you want to do is ensure you have a cross section of the community.”
Five of the defendants in that case were found guilty, but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict regarding a sixth man, who took a plea deal rather than face retrial.
Allen added that it would be premature to ask for change of venue in the current case.
After Friday morning’s hearings, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen said she would not comment until the judge rules on the defense’s motions.
The large number of people involved in the current case meant special measures with the defendants and their attorneys sitting at the defense table, in the jury box and a cordoned off section of the audience seats in the courtroom.
Families of the homicide victims along with relatives of the defendants attended Friday’s hearing.
A separate hearing Friday morning involved two other defendants, who were among five indicted for conspiracy to commit murder and other charges by the grand jury last summer.
Defense attorney Gary Dunlap, who is also is new to the case, said he has filed a motion seeking to have his client released from jail on his own recognizance.
His client remains in jail in lieu of $1 million bail, Dunlap said.
The hearing on that motion has been set for May 5.
The defense attorney also filed a demurrer, challenging the legal case against his client, but it wasn’t certain when it would heard.
The defendants also were ordered to return June 2 for further arraignment.