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For the week of December 17 - 23, 2003


Judge May to amend murder case gag order

"Certainly the spirit of the order has been violated."

JAMES MAY, 5th Judicial District judge

Express Staff Writer

At the request of a prosecuting attorney on Monday, Dec. 15, 5th District Judge James May said he would amend a gag order that limits what attorneys can say to reporters regarding the murder trial of former Wood River High School junior Sarah M. Johnson.

"Certainly the spirit of the order has been violated," May declared.

Johnson, 16, is accused of the Sept. 2 murders of her parents, Bellevue residents Alan and Diane Johnson. Pending a scheduled February trial, she is incarcerated at the Blaine County Jail in Hailey. Bail is set at $2 million.

Blaine County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Justin Whatcott said he requested a clarification on the gag order after Johnson’s attorney, Public Defender Bob Pangburn, was quoted in area newspapers making statements about Johnson’s recent removal from, and return to, the Blaine County Jail.

The prosecuting attorney’s office has been intentionally avoiding calls from newspapers, Whatcott said.

"Certainly we didn’t want it to appear that we’re trying this case in the press," he said. "Mr. Pangburn’s statements look like he is attempting to elicit sympathy for his client."

Pangburn, who requested the original gag order, said he had carefully reviewed the document before speaking to reporters.

"I think that it was the judge’s order," Whatcott said. "Certainly the judge is in a position to respond to any perceived violation of the order, and that is what he is doing."

In a seven-page decision issued in 5th District Court on Nov. 20, May instituted the gag order for attorneys, county employees and witnesses involved with Johnson’s murder trial.

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

"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."

In the web of pre-trial posturing that is beginning to characterize the case, Whatcott on Monday also contradicted reports from the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office about why Johnson was relocated to a Burley jail in late November. Whatcott said Johnson had been moved because she was "making incriminating statements to her cell mate."

"The state asked for her to be moved," Whatcott said.

On Dec. 8, following Johnson’s return to the Blaine County Jail, Blaine County Chief Deputy Sheriff Gene Ramsey said Johnson had been taken to the Mini-Cassia Criminal Justice Center in Burley "as a normal course of business."

"Normally we house females at Burley," Ramsey said. "We have a small facility. It has a limited number of beds."

Responding to Whatcott’s comments, Pangburn said Whatcott had violated the gag order by disclosing why Johnson had been moved.

He also defended Johnson.

"My client has made no incriminating statements to her cell mate or any other people," Pangburn said.



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