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Gag order stands in shooting death case
Tribune pondering legal options after court upholds order
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 On Jan. 8, 20th Judicial District Judge Ron Svaty issued a “protective order restricting extrajudicial comments,” in layman’s terms a gag order, barring all participants, law enforcement officers and court officials involved with the in the case surrounding murder suspect Alejo Villegas from discussing the matter.

This impacts the general public and the media.

The Tribune took issue with the order, calling it overly broad and unconstitutional, Tribune Publisher Mary Hoisington said. “This order only harms the public which needs and deserves to know what happened in this matter.”

So, on behalf of the newspaper, Lawrence media attorney Max Kautsch filed a motion seeking to intervene and have the protective order reversed or set aside. However, this was unsuccessful and the order stands.

It was a Great Bend Tribune article published Dec. 13 that prompted Villegas’ defense attorney Richard Nye to seek the order. That story quoted public emails exchanged between Great Bend Police Chief Cliff Couch and Barton County Attorney Doug Matthews.

The emails, obtained through a freedom of information request and not an official part of the investigation, related Couch’s concern that not enough information about the case was being released and Matthew’s insistence that officials remain silent. Matthews said he would release all information.

Alejo Villegas, Adam Eugene Suppes, and Juventino Villegas, all of Great Bend face charges of murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated battery, and criminal damage to property in connection with a Nov. 15 incident that also involved the shooting death of Aron Villegas. Additionally, a separate charge of possession of cocaine was filed against Suppes. 

According to the gag order, “The court finds that a substantial likelihood exists that continued extrajudicial comments of the type previously made by both parties and the resultant media reports could prejudice a fair trial in this case,” the order reads. The order is the “least restrictive means to ensure a fair trail for the benefit of the defendant, the government and the public.”

The ban covers the release of any information that is not part of the court’s public record to the public or the media. It will remain in place until “the final verdict and sentence is rendered in this case.”

In the motion to intervene, Kautsch argued that the order violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing a free press. “Reporters for the (Tribune) regularly interview representatives of law enforcement, litigants, court personnel and government employees as an integral part of the news-gathering process.”

Because the order silences all such news sources, it impedes  with the “ability to gather news, and that impediment is within the zone of interest sought to be protected by the first Amendment.”

Furthermore, instead of a narrowly tailored order that would include only unfairly prejudicial comments, the order completely prohibits all parties from making any comments, “It prevents the news media and the public from obtaining any information regarding this newsworthy matter apart from court filings and public hearings.

“The duration of the protective order is arguably vague,” Kautsch said. “It does not take into consideration the possibility of an acquittal or dismissal of the charges.”

In earlier arguments for the gag order, attorneys for the defendants cited the Tribune article quoting the emails as irresponsible. They used it as part of their justification for the order.

But, Kautsch said “the Tribune’s publication of the emails was a legitimate exercise of freedom of the press under the First Amendment. The article identified issues that were a concern to law enforcement and the public and the emails addressed those issues.”

Finally, he said, the motion for the gag order offered no specific evidence to support the notion that statements by those involved would impact the fairness of the trail. “Regardless, the defendant asked the court to enter an all-inclusive blanket gag order, prohibiting any extrajudicial public comment, merely because of one article based on public records that were legally obtained.”

According to court precedent, protective orders must be as least restrictive as possible, Kautsch said. As approved, the order is much to vague.

He cited the Adam Longoria trial, a Barton County case involving the August 2010 murder of teenager Alicia DeBolt. The order issued in this matter was more specific and balanced the need for a fair trail with the need for the public to be informed.

However, Kautsch’s motion fell on deaf ears.

“The court is denying a second motion to intervene. The protective order will stay as it is,” Svaty said in a brief Feb. 5 email to Kautsch. 

Now, Hoisington said the Tribune is reviewing its legal options.