Attorneys representing a 42-year-old man accused of raping and murdering a Paso Robles woman are asking a judge to keep the media and public in the dark about developments in the highly publicized case as it moves toward trial in SLO County.
- Photo Courtesy Of The Slo County Sheriff's Office
- GAG ORDER Sheriff's investigators search a remote area where Nancy Woodrum's body was found in December 2018. Lawyers for her alleged killer are asking a SLO County judge to issue a gag order in the case as it moves to trial.
Defense attorneys for Carlo Alberto Fuentes Flores filed a motion seeking a gag order in the case on Feb. 19, asking a judge to seal all or portions of future motions and documents in the case, bar attorneys and investigators from sharing facts or opinions about the case, and close an upcoming preliminary hearing to the press and public. In their motion, Flores' defense attorneys argued that the gag order is necessary because they believe heavy media coverage of the case and hostile attitudes toward Mexican immigrants in the United States could bias a jury against him.
"The defense is deeply concerned that [Flores'] right to a fair trial will be jeopardized by intense and inflammatory social media and pretrial publicity," the defense motion states.
Flores was arrested in December 2018 in connection with the murder of 62-year-old Nancy Woodrum, who'd been missing for more than seven months before investigators located her body in a remote area near Highway 58. Flores' arrest received widespread media coverage, including a press conference where Sheriff Ian Parkinson told reporters that Flores had been linked to Woodrum through DNA evidence and that he'd led investigators to her body.
In a written declaration submitted to the court, Bryan Edelman, a jury research consultant retained by Flores' defense team, said there were 53 articles published about the case since May 2018. Edelman stated that while the coverage was "not yet overtly inflammatory," it did contain "sensational elements," and he believed that there was a reasonable likelihood that the pool of jurors in SLO County would be "saturated" with prejudicial media coverage as the case moved toward trial.
"This type of pretrial publicity has the potential to undermine the presumption of innocence," Edelman wrote.
Edelman and Flores' attorneys also argued that increasingly inflammatory rhetoric against undocumented immigrants from Mexico has created a "toxic climate" for Mexican nationals and could further jeopardize Flores' right to a fair trial. In his report, Edelman directly quoted multiple comments from President Donald Trump connecting undocumented Mexican immigrants and crime, including one instance where he called them "rapists" early in his 2016 campaign.
"The Trump administration has also sensationalized crimes involving illegal immigrants to advocate for building a wall on the southern border," Edelman wrote. "While Flores is not an illegal immigrant, the killing has similar undertones."
Edelman also noted that Flores' immigration status has already become a topic of speculation, both in local media coverage as well as comments about the case on social media. Officials with the SLO County District Attorney's Office and SLO County Sheriff's Department have been tight-lipped about Flores' immigration status since his arrest and have yet to clarify it publicly. In their motion to court, Flores' attorneys said he was a Mexican national, and Edelman said that Flores was a Mexican citizen living in the United States.
Concern over Flores getting a fair trial has been heightened due to the nature of the charges against him. As a capital murder case, the District Attorney's Office could seek the death penalty. Flores pleaded not guilty to the charges against him earlier this year.
The District Attorney's Office did not respond to questions from New Times about whether it supports or opposes the defense's request for a gag order. A hearing on the gag order motion is scheduled for March 11.