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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of Nov 26 - Dec 2, 2003


Judge places gag order in murder case

"There has been continuous information from the sheriff’s office. We simply have to put a stop to it."

BOB PANGBURN, Defense attorney for Sarah M. Johnson

Express Staff Writer

In a seven-page decision issued in 5th District Court last week, Judge James May instituted a gag order for attorneys, county employees and witnesses involved with the murder trial of 16-year-old Sarah M. Johnson.

Johnson, who is accused of the Sept. 2 Bellevue murders of her parents, Alan and Linda Johnson, is being held in the Blaine County Jail in Hailey. She is represented by public defender Bob Pangburn, who filed a motion to initiate the gag order, which is aimed at limiting news coverage of information obtained outside the courtroom.

Submitting copies of the Idaho Mountain Express, Wood River Journal and Times News as evidence, Pangburn said the newspapers’ impact on the community is clear.

"There has been continuous information from the sheriff’s office," Pangburn said. "We simply have to put a stop to it."

He said the publicity on the case has "absolutely" tainted the local jury pool.

In his decision, May agreed that ongoing news coverage could impact the jury pool.

"The court takes judicial notice that publicity illustrated by the local newspaper is extensive and in detail," May wrote, "and that there has been similar news media release of information in Twin Falls and Boise areas.

"The court finds that there is a reasonable likelihood that continued pre-trial publicity will make it difficult to impanel an impartial jury and could prevent the defendant from receiving a fair trial."

Citing another court case, May said Johnson is entitled to a trial "with judicial serenity and calm," not an atmosphere of a "Roman holiday."

May said a jury could be sequestered and given instructions about listening to or reading information outside the courtroom during the trial.

Specifically, May included attorneys and their employees, judicial employees and members of the court staff, law enforcement officers, jurors and witnesses in the order.

He said the order applies to the existence of any confession, opinions concerning guilt, statements predicting an outcome, results of examinations or tests, opinions about credibility and comments made during proceedings outside the presence of a jury.

Blaine County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Thomas did not object to the gag order, but pointed out that Blaine County’s jury pool may not already be tainted, as Pangburn hinted.

"A potential jury pool does not have to be clueless about a case," he said. "They just have to be fair and impartial."

Following the proceeding, Pangburn said that he hadn’t realized the extent of the news coverage when he first made the motion for the gag order.

"The judge’s order covers it. I think it gets the job done," he said.



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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.