Judge may bar press from commenting after California shooting
REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (AP) — A judge on Friday barred lawyers from speaking to the press about the criminal case for a farmer accused of killing seven people last month in a shooting at two Northern California mushroom farms.
San Mateo County Judge Elizabeth C. Lee issued an order Friday barring the prosecution and defense attorneys, as well as the alleged killer and the county sheriff, from speaking to reporters about the facts of the case or sharing opinions about what happened. They can still discuss decisions made in open court and the procedural status of upcoming hearings.
A judge earlier granted a motion by the attorneys to limit remote access to court records, the Bay Area News Group reported.
The press descended on Half Moon Bay after the Jan. 23 shooting, which followed a back-to-back that authorities said stemmed from a workplace dispute. The violence was the third mass shooting in California in eight days last month and followed the killing of 11 people in the Los Angeles area during Lunar New Year celebrations.
Chunli Zhao, 66, is charged with seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
Zhao has yet to plead guilty, but admitted to the shooting during a prison interview with the media. He did not respond to an Associated Press request through the jail’s online messaging system.
Lee on Friday heard a motion by lawyers to limit access to the case, a process during which Zhao sobbed, prompting the judge to adjourn, according to the Bay Area News Group.
Jonathan MacDougall, Zhao’s defense attorney, called District Attorney Steve Wagstaff’s comments to the press “incredibly outrageous” and asked Lee to bar the attorneys from speaking to the media because the remarks could taint the jury, the news group reported.
MacDougall also said the “aggressiveness” of the press, referring to his client’s media interviews, meant Lee had to limit what lawyers could say to reporters.
“Mr. Wagstaffe confirmed to the press the information from the law enforcement investigation, the disclosure of the facts,” McDougal said. “This is all information that hasn’t even been disclosed in court yet, and now Mr. Wagstaffe is releasing it to the press.”
Prosecutor Josh Stauffer objected to the characterization of Wagstaffe’s statements. According to the Bay Area News Group, Lee asked both sides to work out a gag order.
“My responsibility as district attorney, in addition to being the district attorney, is to be a source of information for the public about what’s going on in their criminal justice system,” Wagstaffe said in an email to the AP on Friday.
Wagstaffe wrote that he responds to every media inquiry and his role is separate from that of Zhao’s defense team.
“They have a duty to one person: the defendant charged with the murders. I am accountable to the public,” he wrote, and to make sure “that criminal justice does not work behind the scenes.”
Wagstaffe has made few public comments on the case, other than confirming what the media has already reported. For example, he confirmed an earlier report by the Bay Area News Group that the shooting at one of the farms occurred after Zhao’s supervisor demanded he pay a $100 repair bill for a forklift after it was involved in an accident with a co-worker’s bulldozer.
McDougall did not immediately respond Friday to an AP request for comment.