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Behind the challenge for access to Roeder jury selection

Four news outlets this morning filed a request to the Kansas Supreme Court to allow public access to jury selection in Scott Roeder’s trial. Roeder is charged with the killing of Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller.

The Eagle, The Kansas City Star, The Associated Press and KWCH-TV are asking the state’s high court tell the trial judge to open jury selection to the public. Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert had informed reporters last week there would be no room for them in the courtroom, as the jury was being selected.

This morning, Wilbert filed an official order closing jury selection in Roeder’s case. In that order, Wilbert said listening to jurors answer personal questions about abortion would have a “chilling effect on the juror candor” required to pick an impartial jury.

Lyndon Vix, attorney for The Eagle and other outlets, said he knew of no other previous case in Sedgwick County where jury selection had been similarly restricted.

Vix’s filing is called a “Writ of Mandamus,” and they rare. A mandamus is a lawsuit asking a court to compel a government official to follow the law. The Eagle filed, and won, a similar action in the 2002 capital murder case of Reginald and Jonathan Carr, when Judge Clark Owens said the news media couldn’t argue about opening court records. That decision led to the release of a 911 tape from a surviving witness.

Sometimes, news outlets file legal action on behalf of members of the public, who couldn’t otherwise afford to challenge decisions by government officials.

An interesting note: When Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993, lawyers for defendant Shelley Shannon asked that jurors be questioned individually. Judge Greg Waller denied that request, and the ruling held up on appeal.

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