Early jury selection closed in abortion slaying case

Thursday, January 14, 2010

WICHITA, Kan. — The trial of the man who admitted killing one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers began behind closed doors yesterday, after the judge overseeing it agreed to open only the latter part of jury selection.

Jurors will determine the fate of Scott Roeder, who is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller inside a Wichita church last May. The process of choosing them started in secret after Sedgwick County Judge Warren Wilbert ruled that representatives of four news outlets, including the Associated Press, could sit in the courtroom only once the jury pool was narrowed to 42. The four outlets had appealed his earlier decision to close jury selection entirely.

Late Jan. 12, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered Wilbert to reconsider requests from the news outlets that wanted access to jury selection and the jury questionnaire. His latest ruling assumes all prospective jurors would want to be questioned in private about unspecified “sensitive” issues.

The case has garnered widespread attention, particularly after Wilbert said he would allow Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., to try to build a defense based on his belief that his actions were justified to save unborn children. But the judge said it remained to be seen whether the evidence would suffice to instruct jurors, after the defense rested its case, that they could consider the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter.

The 88-question jury questionnaire, which Wilbert released yesterday, included a single query about jurors' personal opinions on abortion and seven questions about their religious beliefs.

Eighteen questions probed jurors' exposure to news coverage of the case, their attitudes about the news media and their news-viewing habits. Most of the questions dealt with routine information such their employment, marital status, family, military service, health and experience with law enforcement and the courts.

Wilbert had booted reporters from the courtroom during a hearing earlier yesterday on the news-access issue, after prosecutors and Roeder's defense lawyers said sensitive information about potential jurors would be discussed.

News-media attorney Lyndon Vix later announced the judge's ruling about news access, which also forbade any broadcast or recording of the jury-selection proceedings, including updates from the courtroom on mobile devices. The judge allowed only an audio feed to a news workroom.

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