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September 25, 2022

News organizations oppose effort to close hearing in capital murder case

Jerrod Baum appears for a hearing in Provo on April 26, 2018. Baum, accused of killing 18-year-old Riley Powell and 17-year-old Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson, is again seeking to have portions of his case closed to the public. (Rick Egan)

SALT LAKE CITY — Defense attorneys for the Utah man accused of killing a young couple and dumping their bodies in a mine shaft are seeking to close a hearing in the high-profile capital murder case to the public for a second time.

They say prosecutors and others should have to defend themselves in a contempt proceeding alleging that they improperly obtained messages and conversations Jerrod Baum, 44, had with family members while incarcerated in the Utah State Prison.

Baum’s defense team has filed a motion seeking to bar the public and the press from attending a hearing on the issue, and to have certain court filings with details kept secret from the public. They’re citing concerns about publicity affecting his right to a fair trial.

KSL.com and the Deseret News oppose such a move. The news organizations have intervened in the case, contending the public has a right to know about any allegations of wrongdoing by public prosecutors, particularly in a capital murder case. Attorneys for the media organizations say there are many other steps that can be taken to seat an impartial jury.

The prosecutors, for their part, say the allegations are “nothing more than a continued effort to disparage the state’s attorneys and seek remedies which are not supported by the facts and the law.”

Baum, of the tiny Juab County town of Mammoth, is accused of killing Riley Powell, 18, and Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson, 17, more than three years ago. Prosecutors say he did so in a jealous rage after the pair visited his then-girlfriend.

He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony. If he’s convicted, prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

His defense team unsuccessfully sought to close an earlier contempt hearing last year for Utah County Attorney David Leavitt.

On Thursday, Baum wore an orange prison uniform as he sat next to his attorneys for an unrelated hearing in the case.

His lawyers say deputy Utah County attorneys Ryan McBride, Christine Scott and Carl Hollan obtained records of the communication, along with Breezy’s aunt Amanda Davies and victim’s attorney Lorie Hobbs.

They say inmate communications — including those the prison intercepted from Baum — are considered private under Utah’s public records law. If made public, they would lead to an “unwarranted invasion” of Baum’s privacy and harm his ability to get a fair trial, they contend in court papers.

Attorneys for the news organizations say different rules apply when documents are filed in court and defense lawyers shouldn’t do so if they want the information to stay under wraps. They say Baum’s attorneys haven’t been specific in saying how other measures — like jury questionnaires — would be inadequate.

David Reymann, a lawyer representing the journalists, said no appeals court in Utah has reversed a criminal conviction because of publicity ahead of trial.

“One of the fundamental assumptions of our jury system is that you ask people if they can serve as a juror and set aside their prejudices, and if they say yes, then we assume that they can,” he said. “We don’t prophylactically prevent people from seeing what happens — in even high-profile cases early on — just to try and hypothetically seat a fair and impartial jury later on down the road.”

The defense and the news outlets are requesting a hearing to determine how much access the public will have. A date hasn’t yet been set.

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