Crime & Courts

Roeder case stirs global reactions

Judge Warren Wilbert's words in a Wichita courtroom are bouncing from national blogs to the Harvard Law School to other continents.

Every comment by Wilbert in the first-degree murder trial of Scott Roeder this week has been open to second-guessing and living-room litigation. Drawing the most criticism is Wilbert's analysis of the Kansas voluntary manslaughter law that, if allowed, could give the jury an option of convicting Roeder on a charge less than murder in the slaying of abortion provider George Tiller.

Judges who have tried cases attracting national notoriety say they try to be aware of the attention without letting it distract from the case in front of them.

"I certainly tried to avoid paying attention to what was being reported in terms of some of my rulings," said Judge Steve Leben, now on the Kansas Court of Appeals. "On the other hand, you have to pay attention to what is going out to the public that your jury might be exposed to."

Leben can't talk about pending cases, but he shared his experiences on the district court bench with two Johnson County murder cases that received national attention.

In 2005, Leben presided over the trial of Melinda Raisch, a mother convicted of the 1982 killing of her husband. The story appeared in the New York Times, People magazine and on national television networks, and it also became a book.

"My view was always that the public needs to know what happens in the courtroom to protect the integrity of the system," Leben said. "I found the media to be cooperative in taking a measured approach to covering a high-profile crime."

Wilbert said in court earlier this week that e-mails filled his inbox with people offering opinions on his views of the voluntary manslaughter law.

Since 1992, Kansas law has defined voluntary manslaughter as the "unreasonable but honest belief" that the use of force was necessary in an intentional killing. It is also known as the imperfect self-defense.

While Wilbert will not definitely rule on whether Roeder's jury will get such an instruction, he has said he could envision a scenario in which the law would require him to do that. Roeder has said he killed Tiller to protect the unborn.

Opinion writers and bloggers from around the country were quick to offer their criticism.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told Slate magazine that Wilbert's interpretation of voluntary manslaughter is "an absurd approach to the law that would open the door to the most dangerous extension of the defense of imperfect necessity."

"The Right to Kill in Kansas" was the title in Atlantic magazine on a column by Wendy Kaminer, who wrote: "Roeder's trial is not supposed to be a referendum on abortion, but Judge Warren Wilbert has, in effect, treated it as one."

"A death sentence for abortion doctors?" asked the Independent in London.

Judges say they are sworn to follow the law, not the headlines.

"You've got to remember the people giving their opinions don't have anything to do with the trial," said Sedgwick County District Judge Greg Waller, who presided over the attempted murder trial of Shelley Shannon in the 1993 shooting of Tiller and the 2005 case of the BTK serial killer.

"They don't have the responsibility of ensuring the defense and the prosecution get a fair trial," Waller said. "Judges want to try and prevent error because while we know the case can be appealed, we don't want it coming back. Monday-morning quarterbacking has no place in our justice system."

Waller remembered the criticism he received early in the BTK case. That turned to praise after Waller's questioning in court elicited a detailed confession from Dennis Rader as he pleaded guilty to 10 murders.

"I was the worst judge on the face of the Earth because I wouldn't give the media what it wanted," Waller remembered. "Then after I took the confession and got a factual basis for the plea, well, then there was nobody better than ol' Judge Waller."