Media will be allowed to cover the high-profile court case stemming from “Operation Matador,” a 2016 sting in which alleged members of the international gang MS-13 were arrested in Santa Maria and other cities, after the attorney who sought the gag order withdrew his request Friday morning.
Photos and video footage of all court proceedings, which were banned last summer, remain so.
Superior Court Judge John McGregor agreed to an amended protective order, however, limiting the release of documents and comments by law enforcement and the prosecution outside of court proceedings.
Defense attorney Stephen Dunkle, representing Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres in the case, sought the protective order against law enforcement and the prosecution earlier this year, accusing them of making “inappropriate, extrajudicial comments” about the case. He argued that speaking about it would endanger his client’s right to a fair trial.
Defense attorney Tom Allen, representing Emedalio Bonilla Mejia, made a broader request for a gag order, that included barring media from court proceedings.
Prosecutors Ann Bramsen and Tiffany Dix, along with media attorney Guylyn Cummins of the California Broadcasters Association, filed oppositions to the protective orders. Bramsen, in her motion, reminded the court that the prosecution made sure to protect victims, witnesses and even defendants when they requested Judge Timothy Staffel to seal grand jury transcripts months ago.
The restrictions issued Friday ordered that all discussion about the case outside of court follow the California Professional Rules of Conduct 5-120.
What can be discussed? Specific criminal charges; a brief description of the charges; information contained in public record; future court date schedules; the identity, residence, occupation and family status of the defendant; a request for assistance obtaining evidence and information; time and place of the arrest; the identities of officers involved; and the length/size of the investigation.
Things that may not be discussed or released for public dissemination include purported extrajudicial statements to the defendants, victims, and witnesses related to the case; documents, photos and evidence that are not part of the public record; and opinions to the weight, value or effect of evidence that may establish guilt or innocence.
“Any violation of this order may result in a contempt action for any offender within the jurisdiction of the court,” the judge said.
After the protective order was modified and signed, Allen agreed to withdraw his gag order motion. Documents including the grand jury indictment transcripts and “Motion to Dismiss” briefs will remain sealed.
During the Operation Matador sting more than a dozen individuals believed to have ties to MS-13 were indicted on charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder relating to numerous unsolved homicides in Santa Maria over a three-year period from January 2013 to March 2016.
All defendants except for two, will return to court Nov. 17, during which pleas may be entered. Rafael Lainez Castro and Jose Eleuterio Mejia Orellana, who are indicted on conspiracies to commit a crime, criminal street gang conspiracy, will return to court Oct. 27.
On Friday, Castro’s attorney Gary Dunlap requested the probation office file a pre-plea report. In that report, probation will make sentencing recommendations if Castro were to plead to his charges.
Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210