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Judge declines gag order request by serial killing suspect’s defense

A San Joaquin County Superior Court judge said it's too early in the proceedings to warrant cutting off media coverage.

STOCKTON, Calif. (CN) — A California judge overseeing the case against a suspected serial killer on Tuesday denied a request for a gag order filed by the defense, who had complained statements made by the district attorney and police chief had already tainted the jury pool.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Xapuri Villapudua ruled the case against Wesley Brownlee is in “the very early stages." Brownlee was arrested Oct. 15 and had his his first arraignment hearing Oct. 18. The request to bar media coverage came two days later.

In her 13-page declaration to support the motion, defense counsel Allison Nobert noted 11 instances ranging from social media posts, print articles and television segments she argued infringe Brownlee’s right to a fair trial. She also pointed to statements by District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar and Police Chief Stanley McFadden regarding Brownlee and how those seem to have already permeated the public consciousness.

Nobert called Salazar’s statements “wholly dehumanizing” and said they have united Stockton residents “against a common enemy: Mr. Brownlee.”

In opposition, Salazar argued her comments, such as “[Brownlee] does not deserve to have a name,” are protected given the “viciousness” of his alleged crimes. She also said media coverage is produced from the facts of the case rather than inflammatory statements. Salazar also argued a media shutdown would impede the ongoing investigation by cutting off a valuable avenue for public assistance and leads.

Judge Villapudua made note of the 1966 case Sheppard v. Maxwell, in which the court found a media circus had tainted the jury pool, and said Brownlee may be entitled to a gag order at some point as the proceedings — and news coverage — progress toward trial a year or more away.

“The court, at this point, cannot find that there is a reasonable likelihood that the negative press would prevent Mr. Brownlee from receiving a fair trial and in paneling a fair and impartial jury. My ruling in no way condones some of the inflammatory statements made to the press,” Villapudua stated in court. “I would urge parties to keep these issues in mind when speaking to the press and public going forward.”

In the days following Brownlee’s arrest, Nobert requested to keep the media out of the first arraignment hearing, which was denied. Around 11 media coverage requests were filed for the arraignment hearing, and six were filed to cover the gag order proceedings.

Another arraignment hearing has been set for Nov. 14.

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