- The Washington Times - Monday, January 11, 2010

UPDATED:

WICHITA, Kan. — Jury selection in the trial of a man charged with killing one of the nation’s few late-term-abortion providers has been delayed to give prosecutors time to challenge a key ruling in the case.

Jury selection was scheduled to begin Monday for murder suspect Scott Roeder, but it was delayed after prosecutors challenged Friday’s decision by Judicial District Court Judge Warren Wilbert to allow the defense to build a case for the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter by presenting evidence that Mr. Roeder believed the slaying was necessary to save unborn babies.

A hearing on that filing was set for Tuesday afternoon.

Mr. Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., is charged with first-degree murder for shooting Dr. George Tiller on May 31 as he served as an usher at his church in Wichita. Mr. Roeder is also charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly pointing a gun at two ushers who tried to stop him after the shooting.

Mr. Roeder has admitted to reporters and in a court filing that he killed Dr. Tiller to save “unborn children.”

When jury selection begins, the court will have summoned 300 prospective panelists. The lawyers will winnow the pool to 12 jurors and two alternates, who will hear an expected two weeks of testimony.

Jury selection likely will consume much of the first week as lawyers sort out the impact of pretrial publicity and jurors attitudes toward abortion and health care.

More than 100 journalists have received credentials to cover the trial, and satellite news trucks will converge on a community that for decades has been at the fulcrum of the issue.

But how much of the process will be seen by the public is uncertain. Judge Wilbert has banned reporters from witnessing jury selection, saying through a court spokesman that he’s concerned about the potential “chilling effect this might have on juror candor in the case.” News outlets, including the Associated Press, are asking the state’s high court to overturn the ban.

Mainstream anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue and Kansans for Life have distanced themselves from Mr. Roeder, but the issue will still hang over the proceedings.

“That is sort of the No. 1 issue this case deals with — where virtually everybody has an opinion of one sort or another, even if they haven’t stopped to think about it in their lives,” said Philip Anthony, a jury consultant not involved in the case. “At the end of the day, they probably have an opinion, and that makes it very difficult in jury selection.”

Potential jurors who are adamantly opposed to abortion or who favor abortion rights — and who acknowledge they look at this case with a bias from the start — likely will be eliminated by the court without either side having to waste a strike, Mr. Anthony said. But it’s the unstated biases of the rest that pose the biggest challenge to both sides.

Defense attorneys will be looking for the juror who during deliberations might say something like, “‘You know this case isn’t as simple as just convicting somebody for a murder; we have to think about social implications… . We have to think about what in the system caused this person to have to come in and do this,’” Mr. Anthony said.

Tiller championed abortion rights even after being shot in both arms by an activist in 1993. His clinic, heavily fortified after a bombing in 1986, was the target of both peaceful and violent protests.

In more recent years, anti-abortion activists tried using the legal system to go after Dr. Tiller. Thousands of abortion opponents signed petitions forcing Sedgwick County, of which Wichita is the county seat, to convene grand juries in 2006 and 2008 to investigate him, but both refused to indict him.

Two state attorneys general also tried in vain to prosecute him. Just two months before his death, a jury acquitted Dr. Tiller of misdemeanor charges accusing him of failing to get an independent second opinion for late abortions.

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