Prosecutors had initially requested a more substantial gag order, citing “overwhelming media interest.”
A judge ruled Friday that lawyers in separate criminal and civil cases related to the 2022 death of Eric Richins — who prosecutors say was fatally drugged by his wife — is limited in what they can say to the press.
Eric Richins’ wife, Kouri Richins, was charged with murder on May 8 in connection with her husband’s death. There is also an ongoing probate case over Eric Richins’ estate, as well as a separate civil dispute over his trust and an ongoing child custody case regarding the couple’s three children.
Summit County prosecutors on Wednesday had moved for a more substantial gag order, in which they requested that all parties related to each of the separate cases, including all witnesses and law enforcement, should not be permitted to speak freely to the press, citing “unanticipated and overwhelming media interest” in the recently filed murder case.
But 3rd District Judge Richard Mrazik on Friday instead limited the gag order to lawyers involved in the separate cases, as well as counsel staff, expert witnesses and counsel investigators.
Kouri Richins is accused of poisoning her husband Eric Richins with fentanyl, which she allegedly procured from an acquaintance six days before his March 4, 2022, death.
A year after Eric Richins died, Kouri Richins published a children’s book in March intended to help children navigate the loss of a loved one. She was charged in May 8 with one count of aggravated murder and three counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.
The Wednesday motion stated that members of non-local media had “camped out” outside of the Summit County District Attorney’s office, attempted to get inside the jail to speak to Kouri Richins and contacted “at least one key witness in the case.” The move also stated that Richins had been communicating with a documentary filmmaker, according to a review of Kouri Richins’ jail calls.
Prosecutors argued in motion that it is “imperative” for the court to prohibit statements to the media during the case — specifically from counsel in all related civil and criminal proceedings; counsel staff and employees; law enforcement and other witnesses.
“If such an order issues, any information published by these national and international media outlets which is outside the public record and prior to the final disposition of this matter can be viewed as untrustworthy, since anyone with actual knowledge of this matter will be subject to this court’s gag order,” the motion states.
Counsel from the child custody case argued Friday that the gag order could help prevent a custody battle from playing out in the public arena, especially when the three children involved may be able to see what some family members are alleging about others. Prosecutors in the murder case also argued that the gag order would help preserve the integrity of the process.
But in issuing his limited gag order Friday, Mrazik said the “mere existence of the compelling interest is not sufficient to overcome the presumption in favor of free and unfettered expression.”
“With respect to preserving the integrity of the process — that is, ensuring that Ms. Richins, who is presumed innocent, receives a fair and impartial trial, and a timely one — there are other tools available, such as in depth [examination of fairness and impartiality] during jury selection, or potential change of venue if things get out of hand,” he said.
Mrazik ordered counsel and their associates to abide by rule 3.6 of the American Bar Association’s rules of professional conduct. The rule states that lawyers participating in litigation shall not make any statements that they believe may be publicly disseminated that could prejudice proceedings.
The limited gag order issued Friday applies to the separate criminal, estate and trust cases, because these cases all cite financial transactions as evidence, which is relevant to the criminal case.
“Having said that, the motion gag order is denied in all other respects, without prejudice,” Mrazik said. “As circumstances change in some unexpected way, the balance of the compelling interest expressed by the state versus the protections offered by the First Amendment, may change.”