No gag order in SLO firefighter's assault trial

A San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge on Thursday denied a gag order request in the case of a local firefighter accused of assaulting a man while off duty.

Prosecutors had sought the order after the firefighter’s defense attorney commented to the media about the case outside the courtroom.

Judge Michael Duffy ruled against the pretrial publicity motion filed by San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Karen Gray, who sought to limit the information that defense attorney Chris Casciola could discuss with local media.

Casciola represents San Luis Obispo firefighter John Mason, who is accused of assault and battery against a man at a San Luis Obispo bar. Mason has pleaded not guilty to charges.

By rules of professional conduct, lawyers aren’t supposed to make comments outside court that might influence a jury. But among the exceptions to the rule are comments lawyers might make about evidence presented in open court.

Gray argued that the law, passed after the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the 1990s, applies to this case and prevents lawyers from “trying the case in the media.”

But Duffy said that he reviewed the exhibits Gray presented — including reports in The Tribune as well as on television stations KCOY and KSBY — and found the comments highlighted “items heard in evidence.”

“I don’t intend to issue any order,” Duffy said. “I’d just like everyone to be mindful of those restrictions.”

In his interview, Casciola talked about how some of the testimony showed “mutual combat” between his client and the alleged victim, Jory Brigham. Casciola also highlighted testimony from a witness who said Brigham poked his client in the chest about 30 times.

Gray argued that one comment Casciola made noted that Mason was a “well-respected” firefighter, which she said wasn’t introduced into evidence.

Casciola countered that photos of Brigham’s injuries submitted to the media by a civil lawyer could be viewed as potentially prejudicial as well. But the prosecution made no mention of those photos. Casciola also argued that publicity in past higher profile court cases hasn’t seemed to prejudice San Luis Obispo County juries.

Casciola also said that Gray called most of the witnesses to the stand at the preliminary hearing, who were mentioned in the case’s police report.

Limiting discussions with the media therefore was “like closing the barn door after the horses had already been let out,” Casciola said.