Click here to read Judge Michael Muldrew's gag order prohibiting comments outside the courtroom to news organizations in the murder case resulting from the shooting death of Haley Hutcheson.
Judge Michael Muldrew issued a gag order Tuesday morning prohibiting comments outside the courtroom to news organizations or “by any means of public communication,” from parties involved in the murder case resulting from the shooting death of Haley Hutcheson.
Hutcheson, 17, died after being hit by a bullet while riding in a pickup truck with other people on Veterans Memorial Parkway in Statesboro the night of June 13-14. William Marcus “Marc” Wilson, 21, who was in a smaller car with his girlfriend, allegedly fired the shot that killed her.
Muldrew issued the gag order in Bulloch County Superior Court while also postponing Tuesday’s preliminary hearing for Wilson, 21, on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault. Wilson’s attorneys requested a continuance after COVID-19 concerns directly affected two witnesses who were set to appear at the hearing, which was also to have been a bond hearing over whether Wilson could be freed while awaiting trial.
The day before, attorneys from Wilson’s defense team, including Francys Johnson of Statesboro and Mawuli Davis of Decatur, along with Wilson’s parents, had held a press conference portraying Wilson and his girlfriend as victims of a racist attack and asserting that he shot at the truck in self-defense.
What was to have been Wilson’s 9 a.m. hearing Tuesday instead turned into waiting, punctuated by brief chats between the attorneys and the judge. About an hour into this, with Muldrew already granting the continuance, Assistant District Attorney Daphne Totten informed him that the district attorney’s office would be making a formal request.
“Your honor … we are making an oral motion at this time, when you’re prepared for us to present this to the court,” Totten said. “It’s essentially a gag order. … ”
“The court has already prepared a gag order,” Muldrew replied.
He added that the more appropriate name was an “order restricting extrajudicial statements.”
The gag order
In much of what he said after that, he was reading from his written order. It states that the court considered “the necessity” of controlling pretrial publicity in light of “the trial judge's responsibility to control court proceedings” and the court’s duty to protect Wilson’s constitutional rights to a fair trial.
“This case has garnered significant media attention since its inception,” Muldrew recited from the order. “There has been media coverage surrounding the alleged crime, the investigation, and the parties involved. The media and public interest in this case has been substantial, and remains ongoing.”
The order goes on to prohibit all prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in the case, members of their staffs, the defendant, the clerk of court and her staff, all law enforcement agencies, bailiffs, court reporters (meaning those employed by the court, not journalists), witnesses, medical examiner’s office employees, and any other state employees involved in the investigation from making or releasing “any extrajudicial statement” related to the case.
The order, posted in its entirety here, then goes on to list specific things that all of these parties are prohibited from commenting on, subject to being held in contempt of court. Penalties are not stated in the order, but contempt charges can result in fines and jail time.
The order contains two statements of exceptions.
The first is, “This Court does not take any steps which proscribe the press or media from reporting events that transpire in the Courtroom.”
In fact, Muldrew had issued permissions, in response to written requests, for news organizations to bring a limited number of cameras, including video cameras, into the courtroom.
The second exception follows the specific prohibitions: “The foregoing shall not be construed to preclude any attorney or court officer, from quoting or referring without comment to public records of the court in the case, from announcing the scheduling or result of any stage in the judicial process; or from announcing without further comment that the accused denies the charges made against him.”
Threat to enforce
He added a few oral comments Tuesday when talking to the attorneys in open court.
“The court’s only interest in this case is that it be tried and adjudicated to whatever end the law allows and that the case be tried in this courtroom,” Muldrew said. “You’re not going to try this case in the press or on the courthouse steps, and I will not hesitate to hold any party in contempt that tries to influence any potential jurors by any press conferences or release of information.”
He asked each of the attorneys, including Totten, and for the defense, Johnson, Davis and also Martha Hall of Springfield, who joined them in the courtroom Tuesday, if this were clear. Each said that it was.
Members of Hutcheson’s family, seated behind the prosecutors, and Wilson’s family, behind the defense attorneys, attended Tuesday’s abortive hearing. Wilson was briefly brought in, twice, in handcuffs and a striped jail uniform.
Members of the defense team and the judge’s staff attorney went in and out of the courtroom attempting to set up a virtual connection to allow one or more witnesses to testify remotely.
With that failing and Johnson expressing concerns about some people appearing in court not wearing protective masks – which most did but a few, including the judge, did not – Muldrew asked if the defense attorneys wanted a continuance, and as 10 a.m. approached, Davis announced that they did.
Muldrew said the court would reschedule the hearing as soon as possible but also noted that this was complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. No new date was announced Tuesday.
A deputy had checked the temperature of everyone entering the Bulloch County Judicial Annex. One defense witness was reportedly kept out for having an above-normal temperature. Another witness received word, after entering the building, that he or she had tested positive for COVID-19, Muldrew said.
Shortly after the hearing’s postponement, Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Gates Peed ordered the Judicial Annex closed through Thursday for cleaning and disinfection.
In a story Tuesday stemming in part from Monday’s media conference hosted by the defense team via Zoom, the Associated Press identified Luke Harry Conley, 18, as one of the other young people who had been in the pickup truck with Hutcheson.
The Statesboro Herald listed Conley in its June 15-16 police blotter as having been charged by Statesboro police with obstruction. It was a misdemeanor charge. But the arrest report did not connect him to events surrounding Hutcheson’s death.
However, the Associated Press cited a story published by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which reported Monday that Conley was charged for “apparently withholding information during the investigation” and trying to influence friends to do so.
The AJC reported that it had received 20 pages of investigative records, released by the Statesboro Police Department, in the case. The Atlanta newspaper described Hutcheson as having been in the center back seat and said there were four white teenagers, two boys and two girls, in the pickup truck.
The Associated Press cited the released documents as indicating that investigators found that Conley had been seen yelling out of the truck’s window before the shooting and that someone in the truck may have thrown a beer can at Wilson's car.
Also in Tuesday’s story, the Associated Press reported that SPD Capt. Jared Akins said that the investigative documents were not public records and had been released by mistake.
Monday’s defense team Zoom conference was the second of two media events related to the case prior to Muldrew’s gag order.
The Statesboro Police Department had hosted an in-person conference June 16 at which members of Haley Hutcheson’s family – not her parents but other relatives – tearfully pleaded for information and spoke of a willingness to forgive the person who shot her if he surrendered to face charges. An aunt described Hutcheson as having been a “very loving child, quiet at times, but would express her opinion.”
Johnson on Monday criticized the Police Department’s role in that conference, noting that Wilson had already agreed to turn himself in by the time it was held.
Leaving the annex Tuesday, Johnson advised Wilson’s family members and others identified as defense witnesses to avoid making comments, including on social media.