The double-murder case involving Chelsea King and Amber Dubois took another dramatic twist on Thursday.
San Diego County Superior Court Judge David Danielson set aside a gag order that has, with one notable exception, muzzled law enforcement agencies in connection with the case. He also refused the family's request to prohibit any public agency from distributing any photos or reports about Chelsea's death.
John Albert Gardner III will be sentenced for the murders of 17-year-old Chelsea and 14-year-old Amber on June 1.
In court for the hearing Thursday were Maurice "Moe" Dubois and Brent and Kelly King. Gardner, who admitted in court last week that he murdered and raped two teens, was not at the hearing but was defended by his attorneys.
In fact, there were six attorneys in the downtown court. Danielson said he had reservations about continuing the protective order and efforts by the families to seal the documents. In an unusual turn of events, the King family supported the defense's efforts to keep the documents involved in the case sealed.
Danielson also said on Thursday that while he felt for the teens' parents very much and would like to help them, he had concerns about what he could legally do. He told the court that he was unable to find anything in case law that addressed the issue but added that statutes do prohibit some of the information from being released. In the end, he did not authorize the release of any information, arguing that common decency would stop the release and that it was up to the responsible law enforcement agencies to determine whether to release any documents related to the case.
For example, any media agencies who want a copy of the medical examiner's report on King's death would have to contact that agency and let it decide if it will release the report.
"This request asks me to decide what is newsworthy," Danielson said, adding that he was not going to decide what should and shouldn't be released.
An attorney for the Kings said information about the case that has become public has already impacted the family and that the media should respect the family's request.
The ruling allows District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and her office to discuss the case with the media if they choose to. After last week's guilty pleas were entered and accepted, Dumanis spoke about the case but only in the context of why her office had accepted the plea deal. Gardner had faced the death penalty in the case but took a plea in exchange for a sentence of life without parole.
Other Developments on Tuesday
A judge ruled earlier on Thursday that search warrants in connection Chelsea King would stay sealed until Monday.
NBCSanDiego and other media outlets have filed documents requesting that the San Diego County Superior Court lift the gag order barring authorities from discussing the evidence and release records related to search warrants. In the earlier Thursday hearing in the El Cajon court house, Judge Peter Deddeh heard arguments from attorneys representing the media as well as prosecutors, the Kings' attorneys and lawyers representing Amber's parents.
In the end, Deddeh, too, decided against ordering any agency to release documents.
Brent and Kelly King, who want the records sealed to preserve their daughter's dignity, have hired attorney Pat Swan to argue for suppression of certain documents under victims' rights statutes.
Amber's father, Moe Dubois, who attended the hearing and spoke outside court, said he doesn't think it's necessary to release any more information about the case. Gardner's attorney argued the information should remain sealed until his client's sentencing June 1.
"We feel that it is never a good precedent for the government in any capacity to withhold what is by law supposed to be public information," said NBC 7/39 Vice President of News Greg Dawson explaining the station's decision to file the request to unseal the court records. "Therefore we challenge these rulings on a consistent basis. We are also arguing against efforts to keep parts of John Gardner's case file sealed and a gag order in place for law enforcement - despite the fact he has pleaded guilty."
The district attorney's office submitted suggestions for what Judge Deddeh should remove or block out in the search warrants before releasing them.
Those elements could include graphic information that could be sensitive to the Kings. They could include photos of the crime scene or even information on a confidential informant who may have led detectives to John Gardner.
No one knows the content of the warrants that the district attorney's office is requesting remain sealed.
"The medical examiner's report contains a great deal of information about how the investigation was handled. That information might be of public interest. Then again, there might be nothing worthy of reporting. But we won't know if it remains sealed," said Dawson.
The judge told the five legal teams that he did not want to wait until Gardner's sentencing in June and preferred to announce his decision Friday but will wait until defense attorneys are present Monday.