Photo: Judge Xapuri Villapudua ruled against the motion of a gag order by the defense of Wesley Brownlee, the suspect in the Stockton serial killings case. (Courtesy of Central Valley TV)
A judge has denied the protective order against pretrial publicity, also known as a gag order, in the Stockton serial killings case request filed by the defense.
The legal team for Wesley Brownlee, who was arrested and arraigned last week in connection with the killings, argued at a hearing Monday in Stockton that the pretrial press conferences held by the police department and district attorney’s office and the resulting media attention would make it difficult for their client to receive a fair trial.
Both the Stockton Police Department and the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office have held press conferences to update media and the public with details of the case where officials have said they are certain Brownlee was responsible for the shootings.
Judge Xapuri Villapudua acknowledged at a hearing Tuesday that some comments made by authorities in reference to the case were concerning, but ruled against the protective order as she said there was no “reasonable likelihood” that any negative press coverage of the case would prevent Brownlee from receiving a fair trial or contribute to an impartial jury.
“We are in the very early stages, trial is a year or more away,” Villapudua said. “We are also in the era of the 24-hour news cycle, and it’s highly likely that this case will not have the coverage that it is currently generating.”
Brownlee is charged in three of six connected homicides dating back to April, 2021, five of which occurred in Stockton and one in Oakland. One victim, the case’s only female victim and sole surviver, was injured in an additional Stockton shooting that has been connected to the other killings through ballistics data, according to Stockton Police.
The current murder charges Brownlee is facing are connected to the shooting deaths of Jonathan Rodriguez Hernandez, 21, on Aug. 30; Juan Carlos Carranza-Cruz, 52, on Sept. 21; and Lawrence Lopez Sr., 54, on Sept. 27, the DA’s office said. They are the three most recent victims killed in this alleged serial case.
But authorities have said several times at press conferences they have no doubt Brownlee
Defense attorney Allison Nobert argued during at Monday’s hearing that comments made by the Stockton Police Chief Stanley McFadden and Verber Salazar have adversely affected Brownlee’s chances for a fair trial.
Since his arrest, authorities have described Brownlee as “on a mission to kill” the night he was detained and behavior witnessed by officers as “hunting.”
“I’m not asking to keep the media out of the courtroom,” Nobert said. “I’m asking to prevent people like Miss Tori Verber Salazar (and) Chief Stanley McFadden from disseminating information outside of this courtroom that can’t face the test of scrutiny.”
Though ruling against the defense’s request, Villapudua advised all parties in the case to heed caution in their interactions with media.
“My ruling in no way condones some of the inflammatory statements made to the press and I would urge the parties to keep this issue in mind when speaking to the press going forward,” Villapudua said.
Charges have not been filed in the three other Stockton shootings — which resulted in two deaths and what has been described by San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar as an “attempted murder” of another victim — authorities say are connected to the killings for which Brownlee is on trial. The same goes for an Oakland man killed in April of last year that police have have identified as the first known shooting victim in the serial killings.
All six shootings in Stockton and the one in Oakland were connected through ballistics data, as well as similarities in how the crimes were committed, police have previously said. Deputy District Attorney Elton Grau, who is prosecuting the case, said other states including Texas, Arizona, Illinois and Florida have also contacted the DA’s office about similar cases.