The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals lifted the gag order Wednesday initially issued by a McLennan County state district judge in the case of a biker arrested in the Twin Peaks shootout.
In a one-line opinion, written by Justice Cheryl Johnson, the court said, “We deny mandamus relief and withdraw our order staying the proceedings.”
The opinion lets stand an order by the Tenth Court of Appeals that overturned the gag order on Aug. 7, 2015, in the case of Matthew Clendennen, a member of the Scimitars Motorcycle Club who was arrested at Twin Peaks on May 17, 2015.
The intermediate appellate court held that 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson abused his discretion when he limited pretrial publicity in Clendennen’s case before the court issued a gag order on June 30, 2015, which remained in effect until Wednesday.
“This makes me feel somewhat vindicated, but I am sorry it took 10 months,” said Clendennen’s attorney, Clint Broden. “In some ways, the DA’s office got what they wanted, but ultimately, I think the First Amendment prevailed.”
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to rule that Johnson’s decision to issue the gag order was proper, because he said defendants’ rights to fair trials are in jeopardy because of “a danger of prejudice from pretrial publicity,” in reference to the Twin Peaks melee that killed nine people, primarily members of the Bandidos and Cossacks motorcycle gangs.
Clendennen was one of 177 bikers arrested on the day of the shootings, which also left more than 20 others wounded. A total of 154 bikers have been indicted on the charge of engaging in organized criminal activity.
“The gag order was requested by the state to help preserve and maintain everyone’s right to a fair trial. I want to commend the judge on his effort in doing so by issuing the gag order,” Reyna said in a statement. “While we may not agree with the Court of Criminal Appeals, we respect their decision.
“With that said, the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office will continue to make every effort to preserve everyone’s right to fair trial by not commenting any further on this matter. In short, we will leave our talking for the courtroom.”
Phone calls to Waco Police Chief Brent Stroman were not returned.
Before the gag order was lifted, local authorities repeatedly declined to speak about any of the Twin Peaks shootout cases, citing the gag order, which was placed only on the Clendennen case.
Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton, the department’s spokesman who spent hours speaking to media in the days following the shootout, said authorities have released all pertinent information, excluding information that might affect prosecution of the pending cases.
No real change
“At this point, (the lifting of the gag order) doesn’t really change anything for us, because there is not much more we could put out there at this point,” Swanton said. “Certainly, we would not want to do anything to hinder the prosecution of the case, but I don’t know what else we could put out there.”
Broden filed an emergency petition, arguing that the gag order violates Clendennen’s right to free speech and alleging that the finding to implement the gag order was “insufficient to establish that any unidentified pretrial publicity in this case has risen to the level that it poses an imminent and severe harm to a fair and impartial trial.”
“It would have been one thing if they had sought the gag order from the very beginning, because then I would be hard-pressed to have any problems with it, but the real problem came when (Waco police) were holding press conference after press conference,” Broden said. “Then, when the media became aware of that most of these people are innocent, that is when they ran to court.”
Broden said he was pleased with the ruling and said his focus remains on getting a speedy trial for his client.