CRIME, POLICE + COURTS

Judge agrees to narrow but not lift gag order in University of Idaho student slayings case

Jun 24, 2023, 11:55 AM

FILE - Bryan Kohberger, who is accused of killing four University of Idaho students in November 202...

FILE - Bryan Kohberger, who is accused of killing four University of Idaho students in November 2022, appears at a hearing in Latah County District Court, on Jan. 5, 2023, in Moscow, Idaho. A media coalition is trying again to get a gag order lifted in the criminal case of Kohberger. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, Pool, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, Pool, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho judge has denied a request from roughly two dozen news organizations to lift a gag order in the criminal case of a man accused of stabbing four University of Idaho students to death. The judge did, however, significantly narrow the gag order in response to the news organizations’ concerns.

The ruling was handed down late Friday afternoon.

In it, 2nd District Judge John Judge said it was legally prudent to restrict attorneys from making some statements about the case in order to preserve Bryan Kohberger’s right to a fair trial.

Still, Judge also said the original gag order — which also barred law enforcement officers and other people tangentially related to the case from speaking to the press — was “arguably overbroad and vague in some areas.”

Kohberger, 28, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder and burglary in connection with the stabbing deaths in Moscow, Idaho. Prosecutors have yet to reveal if they intend to seek the death penalty.

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The bodies of Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin were found on Nov. 13, 2022, at a rental home across the street from the University of Idaho campus. The slayings shocked the rural Idaho community and neighboring Pullman, Washington, where Kohberger was a graduate student studying criminology at Washington State University.

The case garnered widespread publicity, and in January Latah County Magistrate Judge Megan Marshall issued the sweeping gag order that has barred attorneys, law enforcement agencies and others associated with the case from talking or writing about it.

A coalition of 30 news organizations including The Associated Press asked the Idaho Supreme Court earlier this year to reject the gag order, contending it violates the First Amendment rights of a free press. The high court declined to weigh in on whether the gag order violates the news organizations’ Constitutional rights, and said the media coalition should first ask the lower court to lift the order before asking the Idaho Supreme Court to step in.

“This Court has long respected the media’s role in our constitutional republic, and honored the promises in both the Idaho Constitution and First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” Justice Gregory Moeller wrote in the high court’s decision. He went on to quote a ruling from a federal case that said responsible press coverage, “guards against the miscarriage of justice” by subjecting the court system and those who are a part of it to public scrutiny.

In Friday’s ruling, the 2nd District judge said the gag order served a legitimate purpose and “the very limited incidental effects of the speech restrictions on the media’s First Amendment rights are overridden by the compelling interest in ensuring fair trial by an impartial jury.”

The new gag order — formally called a “nondissemination order” — prohibits any attorneys representing parties, victims or witnesses in the case from making statements that could have a “substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing or otherwise influencing the outcome of the case.”

The attorneys are allowed to comment about things like procedural issues, scheduling and make statements that a lawyer would reasonably believe is required to protect their client from substantial prejudicial effects of recent publicity — for instance, they can likely make public comments correcting misinformation about their client.

They cannot express opinions about the guilt or innocence of a defendant outside of the courtroom, and they can’t share information that they know wouldn’t be allowed in court. They also can’t talk about the character of a witness, expected testimony, the likelihood of a plea deal or other case-related matters.

“We are pleased that the Court significantly narrowed the nondissemination order, a clear recognition that the initial order was overbroad,” said Wendy Olson, the attorney representing the media coalition. “We all agree that a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights are important but that in preserving those rights, nether the parties nor the courts can completely cast aside the First Amendment rights of the press. The press in cases like this one provide important transparency regarding how the criminal justice system works.”

The judge also denied a gag order-related request from an attorney representing one of the victims’ families. Shanon Gray, who represents the Goncalves family, asked to be excluded from the gag order so that he could talk to the press on the family’s behalf.

In the ruling, Judge noted that as an attorney, Gray could have access to confidential information about the case that would be prejudicial if it was released to the public.

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Judge agrees to narrow but not lift gag order in University of Idaho student slayings case