Attorneys defending one of the alleged MS-13 gang members indicted for several murders in Santa Maria this past July have petitioned for a gag order in response to purportedly prejudicial statements made by the Santa Maria Police Department, Santa Barbara Sherriff’s Office, and the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office against their client. If granted, this unusual request would restrict any lawyers, witnesses, law enforcement officers, and court officials involved from discussing the case or making public statements about it.
Defendant Marcos Manuel Sanchez Torres and 16 other alleged members of the Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) were arrested in March 2016 in connection with multiple gang-related homicides that had occurred over the past two years in the City of Santa Maria. The arrests were made as a result of a locally and federally coordinated investigation called “Operation Matador,” which set out to track down and prosecute MS-13 members.
Torres has been charged with 41 counts, including first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and other gang-related charges. In the year since Torres and the others were arrested and indicted, there has been considerable news coverage of their case. On March 20, Torres’s defense attorney submitted a petition to the court that argued the news coverage of statements made by local government agencies has jeopardized Torres’s right to a fair trial.
The motion points to Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin, who repeatedly characterized the defendants negatively in public, likening MS-13’s arrival in Santa Maria to “Mafia in Chicago just moving into your city and all of a sudden taxing people and really committing horrendous acts.” The motion also mentions how Martin issued a fake press release on the arrest of two witnesses in order to misdirect MS-13 and ensure the witnesses’ safety, as they were potential targets. This action made it seem as if the defendants were extraordinarily dangerous and that great lengths were necessary to ensure others’ safety, the attorneys argued. The motion also cites a press release issued by District Attorney Joyce Dudley and statements made by Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen that discussed the defendants’ alleged connection to previous murders.
Torres’s attorney, Stephen Dunkle, argued in the motion: “These statements appear to be coordinated to persuade the public, including potential jurors, that the defendants are guilty and that their crimes are unprecedentedly heinous.” Using case law to support his argument, he maintains that a sweeping gag order is needed to restore Torres’s constitutional right to a fair trial.
In response, Bramsen filed an opposition to the motion, arguing that the gag-order request was overly broad and failed to show how such an extreme precaution could be warranted. Bramsen said the prosecution has actually done more than the defense team has to protect the defendants from public dissemination of facts since the prosecution team made the motion to seal the Grand Jury transcripts from the public even though the defense team could have done so. She also stated how negative publicity does not automatically warrant an unfair trial, noting how even Michael Jackson, who was tried on child molestation charges in the very same courthouse in Santa Maria, received a fair trial and was found innocent despite national news coverage and public government statements about his case. Lastly, Bramsen argued that the defense failed to explore other, less-restrictive means to solve the problem, such as a request for a change of venue.
The case is scheduled to be back in court on April 7.