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Judge slams lid on Auburn coed murder case

A Lee County judge has agreed with a defense attorney's attempts to dim the media spotlight blazing on the Smiths, Ala., man accused of killing Auburn University freshman Lauren Burk. District Court Judge Russell Bush has issued a gag order to curtail further pretrial publicity that might prejudice prospective jurors' views of defendant Courtney Larrell Lockhart, 23, of 45 Lee Road 960. The order prohibits all parties involved in Lockhart's case from publicly discussing it with the news media.

Lockhart faces capital murder charges in the March 4 kidnapping and robbery of Burk, 18, of Marietta, Ga. Auburn police said Lockhart, armed with a handgun, forced Burk into her 2001 black Honda Civic, robbed her of "personal property," drove her around and made her take off her clothes before he shot her and left her lying along Alabama Highway 147 between Lee Road 72 and U.S. 280.

Burk was rushed to the East Alabama Medical Center, where she died. Police later found her car on fire in the Hinton Field parking lot on the Auburn campus.

Her slaying not only made local headlines, but drew national media attention from "Nancy Grace" and other cable news shows. After Phenix City police arrested Lockhart during a March 7 traffic stop, Columbus police said he was wanted here for robbery and for aggravated assault of a child. Those charges stemmed from the March 6 robbery of a 27-year-old woman who was with her 3-year-old child in the parking lot of Sam's Club, 5448-A Whittlesey Boulevard, when a man demanded her purse at gunpoint before driving off in a silver two-door Honda or Toyota with an Alabama license plate, police said.

In his motion for a gag order to prohibit those involved from further discussing Lockhart's case publicly, defense attorney Jeremy Armstrong wrote:

"There has been massive, highly prejudicial publicity throughout Lee County regarding this case. Additionally, this case has gained national media attention from all major news organizations which is further prejudicing the potential pool of jurors from not only Lee County, Alabama, but any county in Alabama."

After discussions with District Attorney Nick Abbett, Armstrong agreed to forego a preliminary hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday. Media coverage of that "would induce further prejudicial pretrial publicity of this case," he asserted. In exchange for the defense attorney's waiving the hearing, Abbett agreed to allow the defense "open file" discovery of the evidence against Lockhart. The case now goes to a Lee County grand jury.

In the gag order issued Thursday, Judge Bush wrote that "any and all attorneys, parties, witnesses, law enforcement personnel and court personnel are prohibited from extrajudicially releasing any information in any form, to any agent or employee of the news media, concerning any aspect of this proceeding."

The judge also granted a motion from Lockhart's co-counsel, attorney L. Joel Collins of Phenix City, to have Lockhart evaluated psychologically to determine whether he is competent to stand trial in the capital murder case.

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