A Lee County judge has sealed court records that are part of the transit rape suspects' court cases from the public and the media and has ordered attorneys not to speak with the press, court documents show. The order was at the request of one of the defendants.
Lee County District Court Judge Steven Speakman, who is handling the case, issued a temporary order prohibiting officers of the court, attorneys, witnesses or law enforcement agencies from sharing documents, testimony, evidence, videos or statements with the public or the media.
In September, police charged Tony Patillo and James Don Johnson, two Tiger Transit employees, with the rape and sodomy of an 18-year-old female Auburn student who was taking the late-night Tiger Ten bus service from downtown.
Johnson's attorneys filed a motion to control prejudicial publicity. Essentially, his attorneys believe public information about the case could unduly influence a potential jury. Speakman temporarily issued an order until he can hear arguments on the matter later this month.
While Patillo didn't request such a protection for his case, Speakman issued the gag order in his case, as well, and ordered the stakeholders in his case not to speak with the public or the media, either.
"The two cases arise from the same alleged incident and the alleged facts are intertwined," Speakman wrote in his order. "Stated differently, the prejudicial publicity, if any, from one Defendant's case can easily impact the trial of the other Defendant."
Speakman's new order also apparently closed off all online documents typically open to the media through Alabama's online court records system, AlaCourt. Charges and case information are no longer available for any of the charges except Patillo's public lewdness charge, which is how The Plainsman obtained Speakman's order.
It isn't totally clear if access to the charges on AlaCourt is blocked because of the publicity order.
Issued last week, it blocks access to the original charging documents and other information previously accessible to the public. The Lee County Circuit Clerk's Office said they were not authorized to speak on the issue and a voice message left with the district attorney has not been returned.
The documents and court information will remain sealed in both defendants' cases until Speakman holds a pre-trial hearing on Nov. 15, 2017, at 9 a.m. At the same hearing, Speakman will hear a motion from the district attorney's office requesting the court order sexually transmitted disease testing for Patillo.
In initial charging documents, investigators said that Johnson, the Tiger Transit employee who was driving the bus, turned off the lights for the bus at Patillo's request. Both men were Tiger Transit drivers employed through First Transit, the contractor that operates Tiger Transit.
Since the assault, First Transit has subcontracted with another firm to place security personnel on all of the late-night Tiger Transit buses.
Patillo is charged with assaulting the student while Johnson engaged in actions to perpetuate the crime.
Both suspects were later released on bond but Patillo, who had been ordered to wear an ankle monitor, had his bond revoked early last month after his monitor went offline for several hours. His bond remains revoked.
The district attorney's office said they did not know his whereabouts for more than 14 hours.