Crime & Courts

Part of jury selection in Scott Roeder trial to be open

After news outlets, including The Wichita Eagle, petitioned the Kansas Supreme Court, a judge agreed Wednesday to release a jury questionnaire and open portions of jury selection in the first-degree murder trial of Scott Roeder.

Judge Warren Wilbert, though, closed the hearing he held on whether to open court documents and proceedings, despite the objections of news organizations that had taken the legal action.

Roeder, 51, is charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller last May, a case that has drawn national attention. Roeder would face life in prison if convicted.

Attorney Lyndon Vix had petitioned the state Supreme Court on behalf of The Eagle, the Kansas City Star, the Associated Press and KWCH, Channel 12. Tuesday night, the high court reversed Wilbert's ruling to close the proceedings and seal the questionnaire.

After the closed hearing, Vix said Wilbert had agreed to open parts of jury selection to the public but that individual jurors will first be questioned in private about "sensitive personal issues."

Lawyers began questioning jurors privately Wednesday afternoon, talking to four of the 61 jurors called to the courtroom. Jury selection enters its second day, and first full day, at 9 a.m. today.

The focus of the individual questioning will involve personal beliefs about abortion, the judge and the lawyers have said, and whether potential jurors can set those aside to listen to evidence in the murder trial from both sides.

After lawyers finish individual questioning, jury selection will be opened to the public via news reporters, as the jury pool fields other questions as a group. Wilbert has reserved seats for the four media outlets that filed the court action.

Wilbert wrote in an order Monday that he was concerned about jurors honestly answering questions about their religious beliefs and opinions about abortion if the selection process remained open.

Jury selection has been covered by reporters in other high-profile Sedgwick County trials. People in the jury pool are not identified in those cases.

Last week, 140 potential jurors answered 88 questions in writing.

The 20-page questionnaire isn't much different from those in other trials. Many of the questions are typical of those asked of all jurors, including age and citizenship, employment and family history, and previous military and jury service.

It also asks about religious affiliations and practices, and how people get their information, questions that have also been asked in other trials.

Only 15 questions are specific to Roeder's trial. One question asked about abortion.

Jurors were asked whether they knew any of the people involved in the charges, including Tiller and fellow church members Keith Martin and Gary Hoepner. Hoepner and Martin said Roeder pointed a gun at them as he fled the church following Tiller's shooting.

Question No. 76 asked: "Prior to the date of Dr. George Tiller's death (May 31, 2009), had you ever heard of Dr. Tiller, either through the media, political publications, word of mouth, or otherwise? Yes. No. If yes, please explain."

Question 86 asked: "What are your personal opinions on abortion?"

It's that question, lawyers say, that they want to explore in more detail. Jurors will answer those questions with only the judge, five lawyers and Roeder present.

Appeals courts have said it's up to the jurors to decide whether they want to answer questions publicly. Higher courts have instructed judges to ask jurors about concerns about their privacy as an alternative to closing the courtroom, Vix said.

"The alternative of asking jurors, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, I argued could be applied to this case," Vix said. "The judge obviously did not agree."

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