Whether media will be barred from covering a high-profile murder case in Santa Maria Superior Court involving multiple men with alleged ties to the international criminal street gang MS-13 remains unknown.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge John McGregor continued a hearing to June 2 for a request seeking a protective order against local broadcast stations and press, including the Santa Maria Times, in a case widely known as Operation Matador.

Attorneys Tom Allen and Stephen Dunkle, who are representing Emedalio Bonilla Mejia and Marcos Sanchez Torres, respectively, filed motions with the court arguing their clients' rights to due process and a fair trial are compromised by media coverage of the case.

"It had to do with the information that's shared outside the courtroom, by the media, the prosecutor, defense attorneys, witnesses or anybody else," Allen said about his motion.

When pressed about why he was seeking to keep reporters and photographers from covering the case, Allen said he was trying to keep a good cross section of the community available for a prospective jury pool. He also said it was too early to even consider requesting a change of venue.

"The public has a right to know certain things," Allen said outside the courtroom. "It just depends on how much that right gets [versus] the accused's right to a fair trial. That's what we will be arguing. We do not want to taint the jury pool."

Last year, a dozen individuals believed to have ties to MS-13 were indicted on first-degree murder charges related to numerous unsolved murders in Santa Maria over a three-year period from January 2013 through March 2016.

The indictment relates to March's Operation Matador, where 15 alleged MS-13 gang members or associates were arrested during a collaborative multi-agency effort that involved search warrants being served and arrests being made simultaneously in Santa Maria, Bakersfield and other cities.

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None of the defendants in the case have entered pleas to the charges, which include 10 counts of first-degree murder, with special circumstances of multiple murder, lying in wait and criminal street gang enhancements. Additionally, one of the murder counts includes an enhancement of torture, and the men face special allegations of using a firearm to cause a death.

The men also are charged with 14 counts of conspiracy to commit murder, five counts of attempted murder, 19 counts of criminal street gang conspiracy, one count of witness intimidation by force and one count of conspiracy to commit street terrorism.

"All of us have been trial attorneys for a lot of years and have had all kinds of issues arise (with potential jurors)," Allen said. "We have (interviewed) numerous, probably thousands of prospective jurors, so it's against that backdrop that I'm looking at this case."

During a separate hearing in the case, also on Friday, attorney Gary Dunlap, who represents Rafael Castro Lainez, was prepared to argue to have his client released on his own recognizance. McGregor, however, continued the hearing until May 5. Lainez is being held at County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail.

April Charlton covers Santa Barbara County for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn

 

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