Defense presses for gag order

Date: 2007-04-11

Salt Lake Tribune, The (UT)
Author: Pamela Manson The Salt Lake Tribune

A Wellsville couple accused of duping birth parents in Samoa into placing their children for adoption are asking a federal judge to restrict prosecutors' public comments on the case.

Karen and Scott Banks, operators of Focus on Children, contend that statements from the U.S. Attorney's Office and the federal agencies that investigated them and their business could hurt their chance for a fair trial. An indictment charging them and five others with fraud and other offenses has garnered extensive worldwide publicity.

"Unfortunately, modern communication through television, newspaper, and the Internet can work against the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' when the media rapidly disseminates prejudicial statements into the public," the defense request said.

The request, filed Monday by attorneys for the Bankses, asks U.S. District Judge David Sam in Salt Lake City to issue a gag order until the case concludes. Co-defendant Karalee Thornock filed a motion Tuesday to join in the request.

Brett Tolman, U.S. Attorney for Utah, said in a written statement that his office is reviewing the requests and will respond.

"Given the nature of the case, the indictment generated interest by the media and others," Tolman said. "Everyone associated with the prosecution of this case has made every effort to abide by our ethical obligations concerning statements to the media; we will continue to do so."

He added that the motion itself will generate publicity the defendants are trying to avoid.

Some of the allegedly objectionable statements were made at a March 1 press conference, the day the indictment was unsealed, according to the request. They include references to a "great tragedy" and "these types of insidious criminal enterprises."

Some media outlets have exaggerated the charges and reported that all 81 adoptions of Samoan children handled by Focus on Children are suspect, the defense attorneys allege. However, the charges pertain to only 37 of the placements, they say.

A federal grand jury on Feb. 28 issued a 135-count indictment accusing Focus on Children and seven of its operators with fraud and immigration violations. The indictment alleges that the defendants tricked and coerced Samoan birth parents into giving their children to the agency for adoption, then falsely told the adoptive parents that the youngsters were orphans.

pmanson@sltrib.com

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