A judge is barring attorneys, family and potential witnesses from speaking about the slayings of a prominent New Franklin couple.
The order by Summit County Common Pleas Judge Tom Parker follows a pattern of similar rulings issued in other high-profile murder cases.
Parker’s decision stays in effect while the case against slaying suspect Shawn Eric Ford Jr. is pending. Parker’s order came without a request from either the defendant’s attorneys or prosecutors.
Ford, 18, is facing a potential death sentence in the sledgehammer slayings of Jeffrey and Margaret “Peg” Schobert, whose bodies were found April 2 in their Rex Lake Drive home.
Jamall Vaughn, 14, also has been charged in the slayings. Prosecutors have begun the process of persuading a judge to transfer his case from juvenile court and allow the state to try the seventh-grader as an adult.
Ford has been under a suicide watch in the Summit County Jail as he awaits trial. His attorneys have said he intends to pursue an insanity defense.
Parker’s gag order is nearly identical to the order Judge Lynne S. Callahan, who oversaw the Craigslist murder cases of Richard Beasley and Brogan Rafferty, issued in 2012. It bans comments or the release of evidence by those associated with the case. It specifically extends to prosecutors, the defendants and their attorneys, all law enforcement officers associated with the case, victim and defendant family members and all subpoenaed witnesses.
In his order, Parker used the same words Callahan invoked to explain the decision. The Schobert slayings and arrests of Ford and Vaughn have generated weeks of news coverage in all traditional forms of local media as well as social media.
Parker said his intention is to ensure Ford receives a fair trial by banning out-of-court comments to media covering the case.
“The court is seriously concerned with the effect which public comments of participants in this matter may have on the process by which a fair trial may be preserved,” Parker wrote.
Unlike Callahan, however, Parker has yet to seal Ford’s online case docket from the clerk of courts website. The printed version of Beasley’s case file remained available to the public at the clerk’s office.
J. Dean Carro, a University of Akron law professor, said gag orders and the sealing of online records are becoming more prevalent, largely to combat the influx of media reporting and social network chatter that could influence a jury pool.
‘A difficult balance’
The sealing of online records is designed to keep potential jurors and seated jurors from accessing pretrial motions and orders filed in a case.
“It’s a difficult balance and it always has been between the right of the public to know what’s going on and a defendant’s right to a fair trial,” Carro said. “The court is always trying its best to guarantee the fairness of the trial, especially before a jury is seated. It’s a critical time.”
Since the couple’s deaths, there have been regular media updates on developments in the case, responses from defense attorneys and published comments from the families of Ford and Vaughn.
New Franklin police Chief Dan Davidson has declined to release many details of his department’s investigation. Just this week, he declined to comment on his department’s recovery of a large knife believed to have been used in the attack. A neighbor of the Schoberts found the 12-inch knife last weekend while mowing his lawn.
In previous news accounts, police have said Ford was at some point “cooperating” with detectives during the infancy of the investigation. However, they stopped short of saying he had confessed to the slaying.
Ford also has been charged with the March 23 assault on the Schoberts’ daughter, Chelsea, 18, whom he had been dating since about September.
Initially, an Akron man was charged with that attack, which left Chelsea Schobert critically wounded and in intensive care at Akron Children’s Hospital. She was still hospitalized when her parents were killed.
Davidson has said Ford and Vaughn walked nine miles from Akron to New Franklin during the early hours of April 2 and first attacked Jeffrey Schobert, an attorney, in his bedroom using a knife and a sledgehammer.
The two then waited for Peg Schobert to return home from visiting Chelsea and ambushed her with the same sledgehammer when she entered the bedroom, police said. The couple died of massive head trauma. The sledgehammer was found next to Jeffrey Schobert’s body.
Carro said Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter fuel already extensive media coverage of cases such as the Schobert slayings and the Craigslist killings. He said judges, therefore, are required to stop the tide by banning potential prejudicial comments from the parties involved and to limit access to court filings.
“It’s endemic and its influence is great,” Carro said of social media. “Now certainly, the public has a right to know what’s going on, but I believe a person’s right to a fair trial trumps that every time.”
Local judges increasingly are applying gag orders in capital murder cases in Summit and adjoining counties.
Orders were applied in the high-profile murder trials of Ashford Thompson in Summit County, Bobby Cutts Jr. in Stark County and James Earl Trimble in Portage County.
Gag orders have also been placed on noncapital-murder cases that drew wide publicity, such as the recent retrial of Denny Ross and a scandalous escort case in Summit County in 1999.
While gag orders date back decades, online court dockets, which anyone with Internet access can view, offer new challenges. On occasions, jurors (or potential jurors) go to the clerk of courts’ website to view documents. Judges have responded by blocking the online access, forcing anyone who wants to view the material to visit the clerk’s office in person and request the file.
One of the first Summit County cases in which an online docket was sealed was in 2009, when Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands blocked the public’s view of criminal case records involving an Akron man accused of raping three girls and videotaping the crimes to share on the Internet.
Longtime court observers believe the last time a case was moved because of concerns over pretrial publicity was nearly 30 years ago when Robert Buell went on trial in 1984 in the slaying of Krista Lea Harrison, 12, of Wayne County.
In the years since, several high-profile cases — some that garnered national news coverage on top of the usual local media accounts — have gone forward without complication.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said judges typically should take the least restrictive path in making records available to the public.
“The general proposition,” Hetzel said, “is that a lot of the fears courts have about pretrial publicity often prove to be unfounded because there are many avenues the courts can follow to make sure people get a fair trial, including sensitive questioning of potential jurors during the jury selection process and a move of a trial to a different location by a change of venue.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PhilTrexler. Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or email@example.com.