Trial begins in abortion doctor's slaying
Judge reconsiders total ban on media during jury selection
The trial of the Kansas man who admitted killing one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers began Wednesday, after the judge agreed to open part of the jury selection to media.
Earlier this month, Sedgwick County Judge Warren Wilbert announced he would bar reporters from the courtroom during jury selection for the trial of Scott Roeder, who is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller inside a Wichita church last May.
Wilbert said he closed the proceedings to accommodate the large jury pool and to avoid creating a "chilling effect" on juror candor.
Four news outlets, including The Associated Press, had asked the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn the judge's decision.
Late Tuesday, the Supreme Court ordered Wilbert to reconsider requests from the media outlets that wanted access to jury selection and the jury questionnaire.
Wilbert ruled Wednesday that reporters could sit in the courtroom only once the pool was narrowed to 42.
The judge also released the 88-question questionnaire presented to jurors, which included a single query about their personal opinions on abortion and seven questions about their religious beliefs.
Wilbert still banned any recording of the proceedings and prohibited filing updates from the courtroom on mobile devices.
He also asked reporters to leave the courtroom after prosecutors and Roeder's defence lawyers said sensitive information about potential jurors would be discussed.
Not a 'debate about abortion:' judge
What was expected to be a straightforward case has attracted widespread attention after Wilbert allowed Roeder the chance to build a defence based on Roeder's belief that his actions were justified to save unborn children.
But the judge said it remained to be seen whether the evidence would suffice to instruct jurors, after the defence rested its case, that they could consider the lesser offence of voluntary manslaughter.
Kansas law defines voluntary manslaughter as "an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force." A conviction could bring a prison sentence closer to five years, instead of a life term for first-degree murder.
"I am going to make every effort to try this case as a criminal, first-degree murder trial," Wilbert said. "Admittedly, Mr. Roeder's beliefs may come into play and as a defendant he is entitled to present a defence."
The judge said he would rule on a witness-by-witness, question-by-question basis as necessary throughout the trial on whether to allow jurors to hear specific evidence on Roeder's beliefs about abortion.
"This is not going to be a debate about abortion," Wilbert said.
Defendant admitted killing
The facts of the case are not in dispute: As Sunday morning services were starting, Roeder got up from a pew at Wichita's Reformation Lutheran Church and walked to the foyer, where Tiller and a fellow usher were chatting. He put the barrel of a .22-calibre handgun to Tiller's forehead and pulled the trigger.
Roeder, 51, has publicly admitted killing Tiller. He also faces two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two ushers who tried to stop him from fleeing after the shooting. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Kansas chapter of the National Organization for Women condemned the judge's decision, saying it opens the door for a society that would condone vigilantism and violence against abortion providers. Prosecutors had filed a motion Monday saying the voluntary manslaughter defence was invalid because there was no evidence Tiller posed an imminent threat at the time of the killing.