Transparency helps build trust

Eight months after abortion doctor George Tiller was gunned down in a Wichita church, the world is watching the community again to see what becomes of alleged killer Scott Roeder in Sedgwick County District Court.

With the views about both the accused and the victim as passionate as those about abortion itself, people want to know: Will the trial be fair and the jury impartial? Will the legality and even the morality of abortion end up on trial? Will what Tiller did inform the judgment of what Roeder allegedly did?

Concerns about the case were fueled by pretrial legal wrangling over whether the defense could argue that Roeder believed killing Tiller was necessary to save unborn children and whether a jury might have the option of convicting Roeder of voluntary manslaughter rather than first-degree murder. Onlookers from across the globe and ideological spectrum have reacted strongly to Judge Warren Wilbert's decision not to rule out a lesser charge up-front, with pro-choice activists seeing it as a green light for more murders of abortion providers and a step toward giving a fetus the legal rights of a child or adult.

But Wilbert said in court Tuesday that voluntary manslaughter was a legal instruction given to a jury before it begins deliberations and that it wouldn't be proper for him to rule on it now. "We don't jump to conclusions, and we don't arrive at the end of the process without a full and complete — and hopefully impartial — hearing," the judge said.

The surest way to foster confidence in the process and outcome is to let people see for themselves, though. A closed door invites doubts.

So it was good news that the Kansas Supreme Court acted quickly against Wilbert's initial decision to select a jury in private.

To his credit, and even as the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office was still arguing for secrecy, Wilbert opened part of jury selection to representatives of The Eagle, the Kansas City Star, the Associated Press and KWCH, Channel 12, the media organizations that had petitioned the high court to intervene.

Wilbert's revised decision still allows individual jurors to first be questioned about "sensitive personal issues," including abortion, in private — with only the judge, a court reporter, lawyers and Roeder present. And Wilbert went so far as to close Wednesday's hearing on whether to open jury selection.

But at least the judge heeded the high court's concern and sent the message that the proceedings of a public court should be presumed open. That presumption should prevail as Roeder's trial continues.

Justice is not so fragile that it cannot withstand scrutiny. Too many public officials, judges and otherwise, fail to appreciate transparency's power to build trust.