While there are no statistics on the number of times a trial court judge might opt to order the parties in a case not to make public comments or set other limitations, there are few instances from Butler or Warren counties that actually reach the state appellate court for a ruling.
In Ohio, judges may decide to issue a “gag order” to anyone associated with the case, such as the defendant, family members, lawyers and law enforcement, from making public comments so that it does not impede the defendant getting a fair trial or tainting the potential jury pool from the pre-trial publicity.
Bennett Manning, administrator for the 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown, which oversees 52 trial courts in Butler, Warren, Preble, Clermont, Brown, Clinton, Fayette and Madison counties, believes other judges may have issued orders similar to the one issued last August by Warren County Common Pleas Judge Donald Oda II in the case of Brooke Sklyar Richardson, the Carlisle teen accused of burning and burying her newborn baby last May.
“This is the only one called a ‘gag order’ that I can remember that has got to the Court of Appeals,” said Manning, the court’s administrator since 1991. “It’s kind of unusual that one was put in place.”
On Monday, the 12th District Court of Appeals in Middletown lifted Oda’s gag order in the case against Richardson.
The teen was indicted last year on charges of aggravated murder, involuntary manslaughter, gross abuse of a corpse, tampering with evidence and child endangering.
Richardson has a hearing scheduled for 1 p.m. on Monday. A five-day jury trial has been scheduled to start on April 16 in Warren County Common Pleas Court.
Court said lesser alternatives were not sought
While the appellate court understood Oda’s concerns and believes he acted with his best intentions at heart, it also agreed with the appellant that Oda’s “sweeping conclusion” that a gag order is necessary in this case serves as nothing more than “an impermissible leap from his findings that the case has garnered media attention,” according to the opinion.
“To presume that there may be news coverage that threatens the administration of justice, whether that be against the state or the defendant, is nothing more than pure speculation,” the court opinion reads.
The appellate court also said there was little evidence indicating Oda fully considered any less restrictive alternatives than the gag order at issue, nor any evidence in the record to support Oda’s finding there was “no lesser restrictive alternative” available in this case, according to the opinion.
The appellate court opinion said, “Nothing about this decision, however, should be considered an invitation for either the state or the defendant to try this case in the court of public opinion as opposed to the court of law, nor does this court’s decision bar Judge Oda from revisiting this issue in the future if justice so requires.”
Richardson remains free on a $50,000 bond and under court-ordered house arrest that was a condition of her release.
In a text message to this news outlet, Charles M. Rittgers, Richardson’s attorney said, “There is a lot we could say about the case but we understand Judge Oda’s concern about publicity. The Judge wants a fair trial for Skylar and we want to abide by his desire to limit pretrial publicity.”
Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell declined to comment on the appellate court’s decision when contacted Thursday.
A phone message seeking comment from Oda was not returned.
This report contains previous reporting by Staff Writer Lauren Pack.