Circuit Court Judge DeAndrea Benjamin will not gag Sheriff Leon Lott to prevent him from making statements about the suspected kidnapper of 15-year-old Gabrielle Swainson.
But the judge cautioned Lott and all law enforcement officials in the case to limit their public statements to those “necessary to inform the public of the nature and extent of the prosecutor’s action and that serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose,” according to an order issued by the judge Wednesday.
Last week, Richland County’s chief public defender argued that Lott’s comments about her client, Freddie Grant, a 52-year-old Elgin resident, were tainting a future jury and creating a media frenzy.
Lott had held multiple press conferences and repeatedly called Grant “a monster.”
“These statements from Sheriff Lott, your honor, are intended to heighten public condemnation,” Fielding Pringle, the defense attorney said in requesting the gag order during last week’s hearing. “They serve no purpose to further the investigation. They serve no purpose for the search. They are sensationalized. They are vitriolic. They are dramatized. We have playground name-calling.”
On Wednesday, Pringle declined comment except to say, “The judge’s order speaks for itself.”
Pringle’s request for a gag order mentioned Lott’s two appearances on Nancy Grace’s national crime show on cable TV and cites an Aug. 29 headline in The State newspaper: “‘Monster’ charged with kidnapping missing teen.”
In an interview after the judge’s ruling, Lott said he won’t retract any of his earlier statements.
“Everything I said is true, and we can prove it, and I will continue to do everything I can to find Gabbiee.”
Asked by a reporter if he would repeat the word “monster,” Lott said, “Look up ‘monster’ in the dictionary, and it describes someone who does horrible things ... someone who comes into a child’s bedroom and terrifies them and takes them. That is exactly what happened in this case, and we can prove it.”
In last week’s hearing, prosecutor Dan Goldberg, defending Lott, argued the sheriff has a right to comment on the case because it is of the utmost importance to find Swainson, a sophomore at Ridge View High School. She has been missing since Aug. 18.
“These statements are serving a legitimate law enforcement purpose – to try to find her,” Goldberg said.
He also said the sheriff had a First Amendment right to speak. “The sheriff is expressing that in colorful language,” Goldberg said.
Grant has been held since Aug. 26 in Lexington on federal weapons charges and faces a Richland County kidnapping charge, although that arrest warrant has not been served.
In making her decision, Benjamin said in her ruling that she balanced Grant’s right to a fair trial and Lott’s First Amendment right to free speech.
Public officials must be allowed to “freely express themselves on matters of public importance,” Benjamin wrote in citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wood v. Georgia, and “finding a missing 15-year-old girl is ‘a matter of public importance.’”
In statements made last week, Lott said that Grant – who had done handyman work at Swainson’s house – had a key to the house. When the teen’s mother, who knew Grant, left the house in the middle of the night to go to her office for several hours is when Grant abducted the sleeping girl, Lott has said.
Gabrielle’s blood was found in her bed and on duct tape in Grant’s home, Lott has said.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.