Zhao Waives Preliminary Hearing, Court Issues Gag Order
Chunli Zhao, 66, appeared in a San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City on Thursday, Feb. 16, and pleaded not guilty to seven counts of murder and one count of attempted murder for the mass shooting on Jan. 23, in Half Moon Bay. Zhao, a Chinese citizen, is accused of gunning down seven migrant farmworkers and injuring one other person at two mushroom farms in the coastal hamlet. In an exclusive jailhouse interview with NBC Bay Area days later, Zhao admitted to carrying out the shootings, saying he endured years of co-workers' bullying and that he wasn't in his right mind that day.
At Thursday's court proceeding, Zhao waived his right to a preliminary hearing — a key evidentiary proceeding that determines whether the case will continue to trial — within 60 days, allowing his defense attorneys time to continue sifting through police reports as well as time to receive autopsy reports that have yet to be completed. Zhao has been denied bail and is facing seven counts of murder, one count of attempted murder, and various sentencing enhancements.
On May 3, Zhao's case will be heard again, and the judge is likely to decide when to hold the preliminary hearing.
At a hearing Friday, San Mateo County Judge Elizabeth K Lee granted Zhao’s attorney’s request for a gag order. No one involved in the case, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, the defendant, and the Sheriff's Office, is allowed to discuss the facts of the case in public, apart from court dates, court proceedings, and court rulings. Media coverage as well as prior comments by the district attorney spurred the judge to issue the gag order.
Media from around the globe converged on the tranquil town of Half Moon Bay after the mass shooting, which was the most devastating in the county's history. On Friday, Lee prohibited the lawyers involved in the case from communicating with the press after Zhao's legal team expressed worries that District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe had divulged excessive information in prior declarations. Johnathan McDougall, the defense attorney, had branded Wagstaffe's statements to the press since the shooting as “incredibly egregious,” and argued that the “aggressiveness” of the media, including Zhao's interview with a television reporter from jail, necessitated the court to impose strict regulations on what both prosecutors and the defense could say outside of court.
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