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SALT LAKE CITY — A judge in Salt Lake City has declined to bar lawyers from speaking publicly about the potential death penalty case for a Utah man charged with killing a teenage girl.
Defense attorneys for Shaun Patrick French sought a gag order on both the state and the defense, a potential move prosecutors called a “sweeping prior restraint” on their free speech.
French, 26, is accused of stabbing 15-year-old Baleigh Bagshaw to death in her home on May 7, 2018, after she told her mother of their previous relationship.
His attorneys argued that Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill made comments last month that would poison the minds of possible jurors. The defense team pointed to reader comments on news websites like “Hang this monster” and “Death penalty is the right choice.”
Third District Judge Paul Parker said Thursday that Gill’s statements didn’t meet the legal standard for a gag order, meaning they didn’t pose a substantial likelihood of prejudice against French.
But Parker imposed a lesser restriction. He said he would order attorneys on both sides to observe the standard in their professional code of conduct, which forbids them from giving reporters information that’s not already public and would likely lead to prejudice.
Parker said he didn’t want either party to do something that would have an impact on the case, so he would direct them to “do what is really obvious and comply with the rules we’re all bound by.”
“I think it’s absolutely valid,” Gill said after the hearing. “We have ethical rules and we try to follow them meticulously, and we’ll continue to do so.”
Gill said his statements to reporters last month referenced details already in a publicly available probable cause statement. He had told reporters at the time he did not take the decision to pursue capital punishment lightly, saying it was the third time he had done so and noting that French allegedly killed Bailey to silence her from testifying against him.
French’s defense attorney Michael Misner argued Thursday that the allegations about his client’s intent are likely to have an effect on a potential jury. Misner emphasized that he wasn’t seeking restrictions on the news media, but rather on attorneys.
“We think what we’re asking for is reasonable,” he said. “It’s very easy to say ‘no comment’ and move on.”
Misner said Gill falsely implied the crime is one of the three worst in Gill’s tenure. Moreover, Gill’s disclosure of the extra time he spent on the decision tells potential jurors that someone in authority has already made a decision that should be left to them, Misner said.
French, who has pleaded not guilty to the capital offense of aggravated murder and other charges, appeared in a yellow jail uniform and did not speak except to identify himself Tuesday. He was arrested in southeast Colorado two days after police said he attacked Baleigh in her home while she was on the phone with her mother after school.
We think what we're asking for is reasonable. It's very easy to say 'no comment' and move on.
–Michael Misner, defense attorney
Prosecutors countered that Baleigh’s death and the two-day manhunt generated widespread news coverage even before Gill filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty. They argued the defense has not shown how publicity would prevent French from getting a fair trial.
Prosecutor Joey Blanch said Gill gave few facts about the case and reminded reporters a person is considered innocent unless proven guilty. She said it’s publicly known that he has sought the death penalty in only two prior cases.
And while the online comments Misner referenced are “terrible,” they weren’t necessarily brought about by Gill’s statements, she said.
Outside the courtroom, French’s attorney Nick Falcone said he and his colleagues were pleased with the outcome.
“It puts all parties — all of us — on notice of what we should and shouldn’t say outside of the courtroom,” Falcone said. He declined further comment.