PARK CITY, Utah (KSL.com) — The judge in the case of a Kamas woman accused of killing her husband by secretly administering a fatal dose of fentanyl has issued a partial gag order in the proceedings.
A “protection order” will be in effect for attorneys in the case, but 3rd District Judge Judge Richard E. Mrazik denied a request by Summit County prosecutors to issue a gag order similar to the one in Idaho for the case involving four slain college students, saying “there is a constitutionally protected need for free and unfettered expression” and that there are already tools in place to ensure a fair trial, including having “in-depth voir dire” to select unbiased jurors or a potential change of venue if “things get out of hand.”
Kouri Darden Richins is charged with aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, and three counts of drug possession with intent to distribute, a second-degree felony, in the March 4, 2022, death of her husband, 39-year-old Eric Richins.
Richins died unexpectedly at his home. A toxicology report from the state medical examiner determined that he “died from an overdose of fentanyl” that was “approximately five times the lethal dosage,” according to charging documents, even though Richins was not a known drug user. After her husband’s death, Kouri Richins wrote a children’s book aimed at helping families dealing with the sudden loss of a loved one.
As police investigated the case, they learned of fentanyl purchases Richins had made from a woman convicted of dealing drugs in the past; that Eric Richins had previously accused his wife of trying to poison him by putting something in his drink; and that Kouri Richins took out almost $2 million in life insurance policies on her husband before his death without his knowledge, according to court documents.
Richins was arrested more than a year after her husband’s death.
Attorneys for both sides have filed a number of motions since charges were filed against her. On May 17, a motion from prosecutors to have subpoenas in the case sealed was denied.
This week, several additional motions have been filed.
On Wednesday, prosecutors filed a motion for a gag order in the case “nearly identical to the one issued this year in State v. Bryan C. Kohberger” in Idaho.
Bryan Kohberger, 28, is accused of stabbing Madison Mogen, Kaylee Goncalves, Xana Kernodle and Ethan Chapin to death on Nov. 13, 2022 in their rental home in Moscow, Idaho, across the street from the University of Idaho campus. The judge in the case has issued a wide-ranging gag order which is being challenged by a coalition of 30 news organizations. The Idaho Supreme Court denied the media’s request, saying the group should have first made the request to a lower court. The justices did not weigh in, however, on whether the gag order violates First Amendment rights. The media coalition is now challenging the gag order again, but in a lower court.
The Summit County Attorney’s Office argued that a similar gag order is needed in the Utah case “in response to the anticipated and overwhelming media interest in this newly-filed case.”
In addition to already being contacted by media organizations from around the world, including documentary filmmakers, prosecutors say nonlocal media outlets “have camped out in the public waiting area in the Summit County Attorney’s Office, tried to get inside the jail to speak to the defendant, contacted jail and sheriff’s office staff asking absurd questions such as whether or not the defendant is eating her food, contacted the Summit County sheriff’s search and rescue volunteers asking them for information and statements, contacted at least one key witness in the case asking them to give statements, wooed the victim family’s private investigator with promises of a ‘handsome actor’ playing them in the upcoming production, and approached one the court clerks at a gas station asking her for information,” the motion states.
Prosecutors say two of Kouri Richins’ calls made from jail reveal that “she has been communicating with a documentary filmmaker, directly and through a friend.”
During oral arguments on Friday, Mrazik questioned Summit County chief prosecutor Patricia Cassell about whether the court actually has authority to put a gag order on, for example, secretaries in the sheriff’s office or on Richins if she decided she wanted to do a podcast from jail. Cassell responded by saying she’s concerned about the “pressure” the media could potentially place on those people.
“Hypothetically, someone could approach a secretary in the sheriff’s office and offer her a financial incentive to speak to them,” she said. “We absolutely understand there is a need for reporting this.”
But Cassell argued the media should be limited to only report what is public record to protect the integrity of the case.
Richins’ attorney Skye Lazaro says she also wants the integrity of the case to be preserved, but argued, “We can’t undo what’s already out there.”
If a gag order were to be put in place, Lazaro argued that the media will simply continue to publish what has already been reported, which she says is all from one side and doesn’t give Richins the chance to dispute any of the claims.
“The only narrative out there is what’s already been put out,” she said. “Gagging anyone now is just going to create a disparity in fairness.”
Just because there’s a gag order, it won’t stop the press from doing stories or deter the large amount of attention the case has received, Lazaro said. “I don’t think it’s going to solve the problem. I think this is a case that is going to continue to get press.”
Other attorneys expressed concern about how a wide-ranging gag order would affect two other civil cases currently going on, many involving the same players. Those cases involve the estate of Eric Richins, and the guardianship and placement of the Richins’ three children. One attorney in those cases expressed to the judge that she believes a gag would help the publicity surrounding the criminal case to calm down, stating, “The problem is with all the craziness with the media.”
Mrazik ruled that while protecting the integrity of the criminal case and the due process of the children is important, the arguments presented to him did not rise above First Amendment protections. Because of that, he ruled that the gag order — or what is being called a “protection order” — will apply to attorneys who are, or will be, participating in the investigation or litigation of the case and said they are expected to abide by pre-established rules of professional conduct.
Specifically, Mrazik said the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct prevent lawyers from making “an extrajudicial statement that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know will be disseminated by means of public communication and will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding in this matter.”
In another motion, Mrazik agreed to seal two search warrants served by police during their investigation — warrants that had already become public.
“Due to the heavy national and international publicity surrounding this case and pending a full and complete hearing that includes defense counsel,” the warrants were ordered to be sealed “pending further order of the court,” according to court documents.
One of those warrants discusses information Eric Richins’ family provided investigators about their suspicions immediately following his death as well as information about Kouri Richins’ relationship with an acquaintance who allegedly provided her with drugs.
The second warrant goes into additional detail about who Richins is accused of purchasing the drugs from as well as information about associates of that person. The warrant talks about a recorded phone conversation from the Utah State Prison that investigators listened to, as well as a warrant being served on the electronic devices of one of Richins’ relatives to determine whether anyone else was involved in the planning of Eric Richins’ death.
Defense attorneys also filed a motion Thursday asking that Richins be allowed “to appear at all in-court proceedings in civilian clothes instead of a prison uniform and without restraint by any means, including shackles.”
In addition, the defense is asking that once the trial begins, measures be taken to make sure jurors never see Richins in restraints either inside or outside the courtroom, and that should their client be found guilty, that the same rules continue to apply during a sentencing hearing.
“Due to the nature of the charges in this case and the publicity the case has generated, media coverage of the accused dressed in prison garb creates a great potential for harm,” the defense argued in its motion. “Ms. Richins contends that the death penalty’s unique nature heightens her right to be free from these impairments.”
In a written ruling Friday afternoon, Mrazik agreed to allow Richins to wear street clothes, but is leaving it up to the Summit County Sheriff’s Office to determine the level of restraint in the courtroom, ordering that Richins “shall be restrained as necessary to preserve the safety and security of (her) and the courtroom.”
Prosecutors have not said whether they’ll seek the death penalty if Richins is convicted.
A hearing on whether Richins can be released from jail pending trial is scheduled for June 12.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Kouri Richins’ attorneys were seeking a gag order instead of Summit County prosecutors.